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Write-in Loophole is Bad for Representative Democracy

In this year’s election, two of the three Manatee County Commission races on the ballot should be open primaries, in which all voters can participate. As usual, however, they will not be. The races will be open only to Republican primary voters, perpetuating a cycle in which elected officials that are supposed to represent a district continue to become increasingly out-of-step with its constituents.

In 1998, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to open primaries in which, "all candidates for an office have the same party affiliation and the winner will have no opposition in the general election."

A write-in candidate is someone who does not appear on the ballot, because they have not qualified via petition signatures or the qualification fee. They are simply a person who has filled out a brief form making them eligible to receive write-in votes on the blank line below the other contestants.

That is the reason why some races on the ballot have such a space and others do not, and why some seemingly unopposed candidates appear on the general election ballot with only the blank line beneath their name, while others do not.

Contrary to what many seem to believe, you cannot just write in anyone’s name–at least if you want the vote to count. Write-in votes for candidates who have not filed paperwork to receive write-in votes are simply discarded. Filing as a write-in means that such votes on your behalf will be counted.

After the 1998 amendment passed, candidates almost immediately began using the write-in vote strategically if they thought an open primary would work against their chances. Most notably, far-right Republicans have used the loophole to fend off more moderate challengers who might attract votes from Democrats and independents. Since Republican voters who participate in primaries tend to hold more extreme positions than the much larger body that participates only in the general election, this has something of a compounded effect that results in the eventual winner being more likely to be wildly out of step with a majority of the people they are intended to represent.

The state statute written after the amendment passed prescribes that write-in candidates are placed on the general election ballot, irrespective of party affiliation. So even when the write-in is registered with the same party as the other candidates, the race is still closed. Simply get someone to file the paperwork (they don't even have to live in the district they are ostensibly running for) and suddenly you have an "opponent" in the general election and an otherwise open primary is closed off.

I once sat on a panel for an election discussion with Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates, who served on the once-every-other-decade Constitutional Revision Commission that proposed the 1998 amendment and was one of its proponents. Ford-Coates was very clear that considering a write-in candidate as "competition“ for a general election was not what she and the others had intended.

Currently, around 44 percent of registered voters in Manatee County are Republicans. That is 15 percent higher than the percentage of registered Democrats. However, when you add up the Democrats and independents, you get the largest group. There is no justification for a majority of voters being frozen out of choosing a representative, an ethos that was the very spirit of the 1998 amendment.

Of course, there is one very simple solution to this problem, and that is for the Florida Legislature to statutorily correct its mistake, legislatively. However, because Republicans have a majority in both chambers as well as the governor’s mansion, that remains unlikely. In fact, Republicans passed Senate Bill 524 into law this session, which bans the state and any of its counties and municipalities from using ranked-choice voting, a proven system that creates outcomes that are more representative of constituents in a two-party system.

When any government takes overt steps to hinder democratic election outcomes, it should be an enormous red flag for all voters. When it comes to you courtesy of a political party that has been obsessed with supposed but completely unproven voter fraud and rigged elections, the hypocrisy should be self-evident. Yet, here we are, nearly two and a half decades later, and the write-in loophole is still fouling our election outcomes. Perhaps it is time for a citizen-initiated ballot referendum to amend the constitution yet again, if only to give Floridians what they voted for in the first place.

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


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