Write-in residency requirements bill goes down in bipartisan flames

As she portrayed her SB 840 as a mostly technical bill that simply clears up a legal conflict currently circulating in the courts, Sen. Eleanor Sobel probably was not prepared for the maelstrom of criticism from both parties that befell her effort.

Following an easy and perfunctory confirmation process for a score of various agency officials — a process that was fraught with much more controversy than usual on Tuesday — Sobel’s bill sought to resolve the statutory crisis that invalidated former Rep. Jamie Grant‘s re-election in November. The problem necessitated a special election to fill the House District 64 seat and the bill was the only one on the docket in Senate Ethics and Elections.

It did not go as planned for the Hollywood senator.

After her explanation of the bill, Republican Sen. Joe Negron asked Sobel whether or not the bill might create opportunities for political people to “create mischief.” It might, he said, allow operatives or surrogates to simply file as a write-in candidate in any legislative race in the state,  closing the open primaries that Florida voters approved by a constitutional amendment in 1998.

Sobel responded that she wasn’t aware of many cases of that happening, and that her bill would simply make state statute comport with the state constitution.

Then the panel’s opposition to the bill really made itself known, this time from a usually friendlier corner.

Democrat Chris Smith called the proposal “a very dangerous bill” that takes public policy in “exactly the wrong direction.”

“This allows someone in Pensacola with no skin in the game to close a primary in Miami-Dade,” Smith said.

Smith inveighed against the measure further, saying that by simply “filling out a couple sheets of paper” a bad-faith actor could “subvert the will of the voters in 1998.” He concluded by saying the Legislature ought to wait for the Florida Supreme Court to finish considering the HD 64 case at issue in the bill.

Sen. Alan Hays also chimed in, saying of Smith’s critique, “I think he’s right on,” not to say write-in.

Sobel offered a defense in her close that they ought to move forward on the bill because the bill is moving in the House, and because the Legislature is properly the ultimate source of public policy.

“We’re the Legislature, we can give direction as well. We respect the Supreme Court but this issue has cost taxpayers money” for special elections, Sobel said.

“But I can count and I will move to TP the bill,” she said, temporarily withdrawing the bill from consideration.

Rep. Joe Geller‘s House companion bill, HB 4043, awaits a hearing in its final committee of reference Wednesday  morning, in State Affairs. Sobel’s bill, should it pass Ethics and Elections with an amendment, would still face the Rules Committee.

Ryan Ray

Ryan Ray covers politics and public policy in North Florida and across the state. He has also worked as a legislative researcher and political campaign staffer. He can be reached at [email protected]


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