Write-In Candidates Close State House and Senate Races in Florida

Aug 22, 2014

Credit Vox Efx via Flickr Creative Commons

Four Republican candidates vie for a Cape Coral State house seat next Tuesday in a primary race that would have been open to all voters, until a write-in candidate closed the primary to only Republican voters. 

The Aug. 26 primary election for the State House District 77 seat is a four way race between Republican candidates Jim Roach, Terry Cramer, Brandon Ivey and incumbent Dane Eagle.  A constitutional amendment in 1998 keeps primary elections open to all voters regardless of their political affiliation when the candidates in a race are all from the same party.  But a decision by former Secretary of State Katherine Harris in 2000 closes primary elections to voters outside that party if a write in candidate qualifies.  That’s exactly what’s happened in the District 77 State House race with the last-minute qualification of write in candidate Jeremy Wood. 

Since qualifying as an independent write-in candidate, Wood has stayed out of the political spotlight

“He certainly has not been present at numerous forums,” said News-Press political columnist Betty Parker.  “He’s had opportunities to campaign at events that don’t cost anything.  All it takes is time.  And he’s had no presence; no profile at all.”

Wood, 22, is a registered Democrat working at Sanibel Harbor Resort and living with his parents in Cape Coral.  He told Parker in an e-mail that he’s always been interested in politics, but so far has had no presence in the race, has raised no money, and does not have a website or Facebook page for his candidacy.  He’s asked for the media to respect his privacy. 

“I’m going to use pretty strong language and echo an article in the Miami Herald which called this really a sham, and a very anti-democratic situation that we’re seeing in this state,” said League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab

“And it really undermines precisely what the voters wanted to happen which was to allow all voters to vote.”

Whichever republican candidate wins next week’s primary will face Wood in the general election, but as a write-in candidate, Wood’s name won’t actually appear on the ballot. 

“According to research we’ve done, no write-in candidate has ever won,” said Macnab.  “I think the Miami Herald said it very elegantly when they said, ‘when these write-in candidates run, voters lose. Large groups of voters are barred and kept out of the election.”

The impact of write-in candidates restricting who can vote in a primary isn’t unique to this Cape Coral race.  In this year’s State House and Senate election, 26 write candidates have qualified. In at least 10 races, those candidates have closed the primaries. 

Political columnist Betty Parker said the advantage of this loophole in Florida’s open primary policy is not lost on politicians.  “In the few hours after qualifying ended I was watching some of the social media. And the twitter chats between a lot of republican operatives, maybe one or two democrats, but there was a lot of joking and carrying on about how successful they were in getting candidates, write-ins, to close the primary,” said Parker.   “It was all part of a big game to them. ‘Hey so and so got a write in.  Why didn’t so and so get a write in.  What a loser.’”

Palm Beach County State Attorney and former Democratic State Senator Dave Aronberg fought to change that policy during his time in the Legislature.  “The write-in loophole has now disenfranchised more voters than any other election scam in modern history,” said Aronberg.   “And I’ve not only tried to close it legislatively, but I’ve raised money to file a lawsuit against it and that has also been unsuccessful, but I do believe the loophole is unconstitutional and hopefully a court will see it our way.”

In the state Senate, Aronberg did successfully champion a measure requiring write-in candidates to live in their districts at the time that they qualify to run.  But just last week, a Leon County circuit court judge struck down that residency requirement in a failed legal attempt to disqualify a write-in candidate from a Broward county State House race.

Even though write-in candidates tend to lose, Florida Gulf Coast University Political Science Professor Roger Green said their presence can still impact voter opinions and election outcomes.  “Whether it’s gerrymandered districts or unusually restrictive voter registration or voting procedures or campaign finance improprieties; all of these things in combination, I think they have a kind of cumulative effect that erodes the public’s confidence in our system of democracy.”

Whether or not State House District 77 write-in candidate Jeremy Wood will do anything to increase his public profile going into the Nov. 4 general election remains to be seen.