Orange County partisan election ruling forces tight timetable
Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph and Property Appraiser Rick Singh listen to Judge Keith White's ruling on their suit against Orange County.

Scott Randolph and Rick Singh

Thursday’s ruling by a 9th Judicial Circuit judge that Orange County constitutional officers must run in partisan elections creates a tight timetable for what happens in the Aug. 30 primary.

Late Friday morning there still was no decision from the Orange County Mayor’s Office on whether the county will appeal the ruling by Judge Keith White, who threw out results of a 2014 ballot issue that had made the county constitutional offices nonpartisan.

So the question facing the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office is, whether and when to begin overhauling elections protocol for the Aug. 30 primary.

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, himself a constitutional officer seeking re-election, said if there is no appeal of White’s ruling, candidates for Orange County’s constitutional offices will have to refile their candidacies declaring their party affiliations. Their qualifying fees would be increased. Qualifying takes place June 20-24. Ballots would then have to be printed establishing primaries for any offices with multiple candidates from one party, while those with no party opposition would not be on the ballot.

Meanwhile, if Orange County files an appeal and seeks and receives a stay of White’s order, all of that could be tossed and the Aug. 30 ballot could go back to listing such candidates as nonpartisan facing off in a general election.

“This is the 27th of May and qualifying is on June 24. I just hope they get this decided quickly, because I sure would not want to print ballots and then tear them up and reprint ballots,” Cowles said.

Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ office released the following statement regarding the decision and the possibility of an appeal:

“The judge’s written opinion is forthcoming and will speak for itself. The County will not speculate about next steps while awaiting the judge’s order, however, we remain committed to upholding the will of the voters and their overwhelming preference for nonpartisan locally-elected officials.”

The stakes may be huge in a partisan battle for power in Orange County, where Republicans control the mayor’s office and board of commissioners and Democrats most of the constitutional offices.

Nonpartisan races provide more opportunities for Republicans because the county’s voter base has tilted decidedly toward Democrat in the past decade. The county now has 301,351 registered Democrats and 205,184 registered Republicans. Another 210,480 voters are independent or members of other parties.

White’s ruling came in a lawsuit brought in 2014 by three Orange County Constitutional Officers, Tax Collector Scott Randolph, Property Appraiser Rick Singh and Sheriff Jerry Demings, all Democrats. Demings eventually was dismissed as a plaintiff.

They had challenged, in September 2014, a county charter amendment that Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a Republican, and the board of commissioners, controlled by Republicans, put on the November 2014 ballot. The election went forward and voters overwhelmingly approved the charter amendment.

The suit went forward and now Randolph and Singh have won.

White made his ruling orally at a hearing, and still has not filed a written order. Jacobs’ office has indicted they are awaiting a written order, and would not comment on the prospect of an appeal.

White’s ruling also opens the door to partisan county commission races because he said Orange County appeared to have no legal authority to declare any county races to be nonpartisan. A change in the county commission races status likely would require another successful lawsuit brought by a candidate who wants a partisan election.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]


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