Closed Primaries and Write-In Candidates: Flouting the Voters’ Will

Closed Primaries and Write-In Candidates: Flouting the Voters’ Will

One might think, with a basic education in civics, that there is a hierarchy of laws in this land. At the state level, one might imagine that the state constitution, as amended by we the people, would stand at the apex of this hierarchy.

One might think so. But if the state constitution conflicts with the interests of our major political parties, it apparently holds little influence over their actions.

Back in 1998, Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission recommended that closed partisan primaries should become open when only one party fields candidates for a particular seat. The recommendation reflected the recognition, even then, that legislative districting maps created many “safe” seats. The other major party and the various third parties were unable to field a candidate, since prudent would-be candidates would recognize how much the deck was stacked against them. The effect: thousands upon thousands of Florida voters were disenfranchised because they (a) lived in a legislative district which was clearly “safe” for one political party, and (b) weren’t registered with that party.

The only real election in these safe districts was the party primary of the dominant party. That primary settled the question of who would represent all of the residents of that district, a settling in which all of the voters registered with the other major party, all voters registered with a third party and all voters who indicated on their voter registration form that they didn’t have a party preference, had no say whatsoever.

So the Constitutional Revision Commission, seeking to ensure that all registered voters would have at least some say in who would represent them, recommended opening the otherwise closed primary in such a situation. And we, the people, approved that amendment.

The amendment didn’t make the primaries open. If there is even one candidate from another party, or no party, running, the primary remains closed.

As reported this past week by Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen, a remarkable number of state legislative primaries this year in Florida (35 to be exact, affecting more than a fifth of all seats in the state Legislature) will remain closed this month because of a candidate “running” as a write-in candidate.

And there is clear evidence that at least some of the candidates are “running” simply to ensure the primary remains closed, thwarting the intent of the 1998 reform.

Christopher Schwantz, a write-in candidate for State House District 4, was quoted by Bousquet and Auslen as saying, “The system is set up so that Republicans can elect Republicans and Democrats can elect Democrats. . . . I don’t want someone playing both sides of the fence.”

Other write-in candidates have been seen socializing, even volunteering for, one of the major party candidates for the same seat. Others work for or have worked for political consulting firms now involved in the primary. Some don’t even live in the district for which they are seeking office. Many lack any campaign material whatsoever – no website, no flyers, no contact lists, no phone bank, no door-to-door campaigns . . . nothing.

The intent of the constitutional amendment was to enfranchise voters who lived in “safe” districts. Such empty write-in candidacies, which don’t present a meaningful choice to voters, clearly fly in the face of that intent.

This isn’t a partisan issue, if by that we mean it’s just about Republicans or just about Democrats. Both parties’ candidates are benefiting from this practice.

This isn’t about whether you or I or the nominal write-in candidates or anyone else agree with what the voters of Florida decided in 1998. This is about honoring their clear intent. It’s about the spirit of democracy, of meaningful elections, and of representation.

These write-in candidacies aren’t illegal. But that doesn’t make them right.

In a campaign season in which both parties’ “establishments” have been pummeled by angry citizens, such willful flouting of the will of the people seems shocking. Maybe it’s just “tone-deaf,” to use a recently popular term.

Whatever one wishes to call it, one must acknowledge that it is, simply and stunningly, arrogant. Whether these candidates are truly self-starting non-candidates bent on preserving partisan primaries for partisans, or folks invited or induced to file by other incentives, both the intent and the effect is to tell the voters of Florida that we can pass a constitutional amendment, but it won’t mean that our political leaders will abide by it.

On this issue of enfranchisement, the people spoke pretty clearly back in 1998. Florida’s voters expect to have a voice in the election of their representatives . . . period.

It’s remarkable how long it is taking our two dominant parties to hear them.