A recent series of ethics complaints against write-in candidates brought by Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a Democrat, along with Florida Constitution Revision Commission member Sherry Plymale, a Republican, has rightly brought attention to the deceptive, but increasingly common, political strategy of using write-in candidates to limit who can vote in primaries.
We applaud the filing of these complaints and urge members of the Florida Legislature to follow their example and close the write-in candidate loophole.
Aronberg and Plymale filed complaints against eight candidates in the state’s recent primaries, including two from South Florida, with the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Department of State. Their target was what Aronberg calls the “unethical and undemocratic” loophole, though the specific complaints are over incomplete financial disclosure forms, tell-tale signs that the “candidate” may not be altogether on the up-and-up.
Earlier this year, Aronberg and Plymale tried to end the write-in loophole by asking the Constitution Review Commission to back an amendment. But the commission, which meets every 20 years to put up amendment proposals for statewide referendum, rejected the idea — not the only time this body made the wrong call.
The loophole exists because Florida uses a closed primary system. That means that a voter must be a registered member of a political party to vote in that party’s primary. Registered Republicans choose the Republican candidate, and registered Democrats choose the Democratic candidate. And the 27 percent of Florida voters affiliated with no party vote in neither party’s primary.
To be sure, the debate over whether Florida should keep or abandon this closed system erupts around every primary election. And this year is no different as the Post Editorial Board has heard from readers on both sides of the issue since the Aug. 28 primary.
But voters have made a small exception. In 1998, Florida voters decreed that anybody from any party (or no party) gets to vote in a primary when only one side puts up candidates — when, in other words, the primary winner will take the elected office. This gives all citizens the chance to choose the person who is going to represent them.
The difficulty is that politicians figured out how to game the system. Since 2000, state elections officials have held that if a write-in candidate enters the race, the primary is kept closed.
In theory, this makes some sense, since having the write-in candidate means there is a choice for voters. However, experience shows that write-in-candidates are rarely viable. Many write-in candidates are virtually invisible after filing.
Thus, by putting up a paper opponent, a candidate or a political consultant can ensure that only same-party members take part in the primary.
Sign up for The Palm Beach Post FREE weekly Opinion newsletter: Text Opinion to 444999
This year alone, thousands of Florida voters were disenfranchised thanks to the write-in candidate loophole. One of those races was in Palm Beach County-based District 30, a contest between Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, and fellow Democrat Rubin Anderson. We can’t speak to the motivations of Josh Santos, the write-in candidate in this race. But, it does seem like an odd coincidence that the write-in candidate’s financial disclosure was notarized by a former aide to Powell.
Unfortunately, this is bipartisan chicanery. In truth, both parties have been using this loophole with great success. In 2016, write-ins blocked full voter participation in six Senate districts and 14 House districts, disenfranchising 1.6 million voters.
We commend the efforts of Aronberg and Plymale. Yet, far more needs to be done. The Florida Legislature must stop watching, and actually move legislation to fix the problem or the people of Florida need to fix it through an initiative.
Allowing this loophole to persist thwarts the clear intent of Floridians who, 20 years ago, resoundingly said that they wanted open primaries when only one party is fielding candidates. It’s time to clean up this mischief from phantom “candidates.”
Experience shows that write-in-candidates are rarely viable. Many write-in candidates are virtually invisible after filing.