A 1951 state law that would have placed Republican candidates above their Democratic opponents on the 2020 ballot has been struck down.
The ruling came Friday from North Florida’s Chief U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker.
The law states that members of the Governor’s party must be listed first on the ballot. The state’s current Governor, Ron DeSantis, is a Republican. That party has held the Governor’s mansion for more than two decades.
State officials say they plan to appeal the Friday ruling, which found the law unfairly benefited members of the Governor’s party.
“Plaintiffs have proven—and this Court hereby finds—that candidates of the major parties in Florida receive an average primacy effect vote of approximately five percent when listed first in their office block on the ballot, and that this advantage accrues to a candidate because of the candidates’ name order, which in turn is prescribed by section 101.151(3)(a), Florida Statutes,” Walker wrote in his ruling, according to a copy posted by Rick Hasen’s Election Law blog.
“Furthermore, given Florida’s history of election results in which the margin of victory or defeat is less than three to five percentage points, this Court finds section 101.151(3)(a) has impacted Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by systematically allocating that small but statistically significant advantage to Republican candidates in elections where the last-elected governor was a Republican, just as it awarded that advantage to Democrats in elections when Florida’s last-elected governor was a Democrat.”
Indeed, the 2018 election saw a series of races forced so close they required a mandatory recount. Three of those races were at the state level, including the contest for Governor.
Walker also acknowledged the ballot order is not the only reason a candidate wins or loses an election.
“But although no single raindrop bursts a dam, and a single small transaction rare is the sole cause of a bankruptcy, the dam still fails and the debtor becomes insolvent. Similarly, candidate name order effects are not the only reason elections are won and lost, but they do contribute substantially to candidates’ successes or failures at the polls,” he wrote.
The ballot order advantage “is a fair-weather friend to the party in power, whichever party that may be, and though its inclination may change depending on the prevailing political breeze it is unquestionably a partisan provision,” and is therefore politically discriminatory, the judge found.
Democratic organizations, including at the national level, hailed Walker’s ruling.
“An unbiased ballot is one of the cornerstones of our democratic system and Democrats are taking every action possible to protect the integrity of our democratic process,” said Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“This victory is an important step in ensuring every Floridian can participate in a fair election.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo also added remarks.
“This is a huge victory for Florida voters,” Rizzo said.
“This law was another attempt by Florida Republicans to unconstitutionally sway an election — and give Republicans an unfair advantage. In a state where elections are decided by less than half a percentage point — this is a monumental ruling.”
While Rizzo asserted Republicans were responsible for the law, the statute was passed back in 1951. At the time, Democrats controlled the Legislature and the Governor at the time, Fuller Warren, was also a Democrat.
Cheri Bustos, Chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also attempted to lay blame at the feet of Republicans despite Democrats approving the original law.
“For too long, Florida Republicans have used unconstitutional tactics to hold onto power,” Bustos said.
“This federal court victory returns the power to hardworking Floridians and now all candidates will have to campaign on a more level playing field. Across the country, we will continue to challenge unlawful provisions that threaten fair elections and silence the voices of the American people.”
The reality is, as Walker noted, the law appears to have benefited whomever occupied the Governor’s mansion at a given time. Given Republicans’ stranglehold on the Governor’s mansion, they’ve been recent the beneficiaries. But it’s unclear that reality would continue going forward.
And should Walker’s ruling stand, it certainly won’t. It’s unclear whether the appeal process will be settled in time to affect the printing of the 2020 ballot.
The court did not issue a ruling on how the ballot would need to be organized in absence of the current law, though suggesting alphabetizing candidates would easily assuage any concerns of bias.
But Walker’s ruling made clear the current system shouldn’t stand.
“In light of the almost total absence of any legitimate state interest favoring this system over the multiple alternatives available, it is difficult to imagine what other purpose it could possibly serve than as a thumb on the scale in favor of the party in power,” Walker wrote.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.