Martin Dyckman: Write-ins waste money, disenfranchise voters

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In a column several months ago I deplored the outcomes of two election cases that brought to mind Charles Dickens’s famous phrase, “If the law says that, the law is a ass, an idiot.”

 In one, the First District Court of Appeal refused to reinstate a legislative candidate who had been kicked off the ballot after her bank erroneously bounced her qualifying fee check.

In the other, the court allowed the governor to call off a scheduled election and instead appoint the successor to a retiring circuit judge who contrived to leave office three days before his term expires.

It has gotten worse since then. That loud sound you hear is the jackass braying.

The Supreme Court refused to review either case. Laura Levy’s hyperlegalistic disqualification in House District 113 left the voters with an unopposed incumbent. Meanwhile, the voters of the Fourth Judicial Circuit were without any voice in the successor to Circuit Judge Donald Moran of Jacksonville.

And in yet another bizarre outcome, the First District in October effectively nullified the August open primary that returned Rep. Jamie Grant to the state House in District 64, which comprises parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. The court ruled on appeal that a write-in candidate, David John Matthews, should not have been disqualified for living outside the district.

As matters stand, it means the Legislature will reconvene in March with District 64 unrepresented until a special general election on April 21 in which Grant will be the only candidate on the ballot. Miriam Steinberg, the rival he defeated in the voided Republican primary, chose not to qualify for the rerun, leaving Grant unopposed for the nomination.

But Mathews hasn’t withdrawn, requiring a full dress general election despite the overwhelming likelihood that Grant will win. (Matthews wins only if nobody but his friends turn out to vote, which I suppose is remotely possible.) Whatever votes Matthews gets will not include even his own unless he has moved into the district since the litigation.

Even so, early voting is scheduled April 11-18 at four sites in Hillsborough and three in Pinellas and the election supervisors in both counties will have to open election day polling places with at least minimal staffing. Taxpayers who know Matthews might consider reasoning with him about this.

If this situation isn’t absurd, nothing is. But the court was bound by the Constitution, which requires legislators to live in the districts they represent but says nothing about having to reside in them before election.

It all would have been over in November, in the normal course of business, if Steinberg’s husband hadn’t sued to disqualify Matthews and thereby open the primary to Democrats and independents as well as Republicans. The Florida Constitution provides for a primary open to all voters “if all candidates for an office have the same party affiliation and the winner will have no opposition in the general election.” Trouble is, an early ruling by the secretary of state and later language in the law consider write-ins to be opposition.

That should be fixed – by legislation or by the Supreme Court, if possible. Write-in candidates never succeed in Florida. Their only purpose, aside from vanity, is to close primaries that ought to be open to every voter. But that’s how both major parties seem to like it, the public be damned.

There was a parallel to the District 64 follies in a Broward County Commission race, but the write-in candidate who forced the Democratic primary to be repeated eventually withdrew, so there will be no pointless general election.

One easy fix would be to abolish write-in candidacies. But when the Legislature tried that, it was overruled in 1974 by a split Florida Supreme Court decision holding that the state constitution guarantees the right to a write-in campaign.

A broader solution would be to adopt California’s completely open primary system. It would bring the huge benefit of restoring some of the moderation that has been lost to gerrymandering. But neither major party would welcome that.

What happened to Levy – which even the courts admitted was a “harsh result” – shouldn’t happen to anyone else. When a bank admits it fouled up, the Department of State should be able to take that into account.

The constitutional glitch that Moran exposed should be fixed also. If the governor is to trump the voters, the resignation of the judge who is being replaced should be effectively immediately rather than so near as three days – or even three weeks or three months – to the end of his term.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina.

Martin Dyckman



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