A Florida judge disqualified Rebekah Jones from challenging Rep. Matt Gaetz for his seat in Congress.
Leon Circuit Court Judge John Cooper from the bench said Jones could not run as a Democrat because she had not been a registered Democrat for 365 days before qualifying as a candidate for Congress.
“I don’t think I can come to any conclusion other than this,” Cooper said. “Jones was not a registered member of the Democratic Party almost two months during this period.”
This means Peggy Schiller wins the Democratic Primary in Florida’s 1st Congressional District by default, though Jones will likely appeal the ruling. Her name will appear on the ballot but votes cast for her will not count.
The hearing featured some tense moments.
While issuing his decision, Cooper had to kick Jones out of the trial for a short period for interrupting his ruling. He allowed her back in minutes later, and she said she believed her Zoom software was muted when she shouted back at his statements and said she had proof her identity had been hacked.
When Cooper allowed her back into hearing, he told her she could not so much as mouth gripes or he would boot her from the trial again.
The decision makes Jones the latest candidate undone by a new Florida law requiring long-standing and consistent membership of a political party. Republican Ashley Guy dropped out of a state House race this year over similar concerns, as did Democrat Curtis Calabrese from a South Florida open congressional race.
Republican Austin Brownfield was also booted by a Pinellas County judge from a state House race because he was registered without party affiliation a year ahead of qualifying. Cooper cited the ruling in issuing his own determination about Jones.
Schiller, Jones’ Democratic Primary opponent, sued in Leon County Circuit Court to throw Jones from the ballot. Schiller’s attorney. Juan-Carlos Planas, a former state Representative, argued in court that Jones cannot run because of a new state law requiring candidates to be a member of a party for a year ahead of qualifying as a candidate.
Jones during her own testimony argued that outside individuals fraudulently sent in the paperwork to change her status as a Maryland voter.
“Someone else attempted to change my voter registration,” she said.
Planas pointed toward a number of Federal Election Commission filings where Jones identified herself as an independent or an unaffiliated candidate for Congress. Additionally, Jones initially announced she would run for Congress without party affiliation, then changed plans based on the new law passed by the Legislature and ran as a Democrat out of necessity.
Jones attorney Ben Kuehne asked her about that when she was on the stand, and stressed Florida law historically allowed candidates to run without party affiliation regardless of whether they were registered members of a party. That has frequently been the route of candidates who want to advance to a general election without winning a party Primary Election.
Jones said she didn’t want to run with the confines of partisanship.
“I wanted all voters to feel like they could talk to me and I would listen to them,” she said.
None of this addressed, however, the fact she lived in Maryland when she filed her federal candidacy paperwork, or that her individual party registration in that state wavered between Democrat and unaffiliated.
Planas noted that the period Jones’ registration switched from Democrat to unaffiliated in Maryland coincides with the time when she publicly said she would run without party affiliation. It was changed back to Democrat at the time Jones said she would run for the Democratic nomination.
“It makes no sense, the argument she is making,” Planas said.
Regardless of whether Jones consciously or intentionally had her registration changed within a year of qualifying, she was still not in compliance with the law, Planas said. “She was not a member of the Democratic Party in Maryland.”
Kuehne argued the law doesn’t rely on party registration but simply says candidates must be members of a party. Many states don’t even have voters register as members of a party.
“A member of a political party is not established by voter registration, although that is helpful,” Kuehne said.
But Cooper said the timing of Jones’ party registration changes proved too convenient to believe she was the subject of a hack or other political malpractice.
He said only a political party can determine that a candidate is not a member, and unlike other cases, the Florida Democratic Party isn’t a plaintiff in the case against Jones.
Jones, a former data scientist with the Florida Department of Health, drew national attention claiming she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data, but an Inspector General in May determined her allegations were unfounded and unsubstantiated.