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A Constitutional Amendment Could Close the Write-in Loophole


I m often asked my thoughts on how we might turn around the sad state of local and state politics in which our single-party rule has been captured by special interests, most notably land developers. While there may not be a magic bullet, I do have some thoughts.

As always, the simplest and most direct manner in which we might escape what one might call a quality-of-life death spiral would be for a large enough body of voters to become more seriously engaged in the electoral process. If only enough voters would do their homework and stop relying on the empty rhetoric and hot-buttoned ideological issues of campaign advertisements to inform their votes, we could be out of this in no time.

That said, we have clearly been moving in the wrong direction on that front and it doesn t seem like things are bound to change anytime soon.

If we were able to get the money out of politics, as they say, such forces would be stripped of their most effective tactics. Yet, here again, we have been moving quickly in the wrong direction. Unless Citizens United vs. the FEC is overturned or cured legislatively, money will reign (and rain). Our current SCOTUS, which is choc full of corporatists from both sides of the ideological spectrum, seems highly unlikely to overturn the decision. As for Congress, I would not bet on the very legislators who benefit from the status quo to disrupt it.

Ranked choice voting is another tool that would level the playing field, so it also should be no surprise that Governor DeSantis and his Republican cohorts have made it illegal in our state.

The next item on my wishlist would be to close Florida s write-in loophole, the history and details of which I ve written about extensively (click here if you d like a refresher). Here too it has been made clear that legislators at the state level have no stomach for ridding the political game of a tool that so many of them have benefited from. However, our ability to amend the state constitution via referendum would seem to make this the most realistic effort in terms of actually attempting to marshall resources toward the cause.

Florida has an open primary system, however, the write-in loophole effectively nullifies it. Whichever candidate might feel that their platform is most vulnerable to support from independents and the opposition party simply has to get a friend to sign up as a recognized write-in candidate, and what should be an open primary because there is effectively no opposition in the general election, is effectively closed.

Because Republican voters are the dominant force in Manatee County (and increasingly statewide) and primaries are reliably dominated by a party s base (which tends to hold the most extreme positions), this creates a natural incentive for anyone running in a Republican primary to take the most extreme positions. Whereas a more moderate Republican candidate might seek to court independents and Democrats, closed primaries render that a losing strategy.

Special interests like land developers, whose primary concern is the removal of anything that impedes maximum profits, including the deregulation of environmental policies and exceptions to sustainable growth land use rules, are hence incentivized to support extreme candidates who vote in their favor on such matters in exchange for a platform for extremism on social issues.

The compounded effect of this dynamic over several election cycles is to move the ideological reflection of elected representatives further and further out of step with its constituency, which is effectively rendered powerless when it comes to fighting the worst inclinations of both the special interests and the extremists.

To this point, Manatee County residents have mobilized with impressive force against both social and development issues that a plurality of citizens are opposed to only to have their pleas fall on completely deaf ears. So long as such officials keep developers and a small but rabid portion of their base happy, they have proven to be all but bulletproof come election time.

By no means would I suggest that an initiative to pass such a referendum would be a walk in the park. Such referendums require 60% approval to pass which has meant a significant amount of money is required to educate voters. And when there is a well-funded opponent to such an effort, it only compounds the expense. To be sure, those who benefit from the status quo would mount and attack the campaign, declaring that it was a sneaky trick by liberals and socialists who just want to hijack Republican seats.

However, this seems to be an issue for which voters have a relatively high degree of understanding, and there is no shortage of Republicans who can no longer recognize their party. Unfortunately, many of them remain resistant to support the opposition under any circumstances, but the idea of being able to select a more moderate member of their own party would surely be more attractive to any Republican who has had enough of both the extremism and the shilling for Big Development. Combined with the votes of independents and Democrats, this would surely result in representation that better represented the whole of the citizenry, rather than that of a relative few on the fringe.

Right now, multiple non-partisan fair election groups are looking at taking the fight to closed primaries and Florida is definitely on their radar. If a meaningful effort to get such a referendum on the ballot is undertaken, it should be supported across the board. Whether it is Democrats in places like California or New York or Republicans in places like Texas and Florida, the lesson has been that one-party rule is the system least likely to provide a government most representative of a majority of its citizens.

Dennis ""Mitch"" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.