While elections won’t be back for awhile, the city of St. Augustine plans to take on the issue of write-in candidates and their ability to close primary contests.
In St. Johns County this year, write-in candidates closed primaries in several contests where only Republican candidates had filed — and which would have been open to all registered voters.
The city’s resolution is coming to the table even though St. Augustine’s City Commission has no-party-affiliation races, so the city’s elections aren’t directly affected by the issue.
But the city is affected in a different way because the issue creates distrust in the political process, said Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, sponsor of the resolution.
“I think our commission is working very hard to create transparency and accountability and build trust within the community, and our community is really just a small part of our larger region and our state,” she said.
“I think it’s time to take action,” she added.
The City Commission is expected to vote on the resolution on Monday, and it’s not clear whether the issue will be added to the city’s official legislative agenda if it passes.
The resolution would oppose “write-in candidates’ ability to close primary elections” and would also urge lawmakers “to pass legislation to make write-in candidates more accountable, for example[,] by requiring them to at least collect voter signatures on petitions or pay a qualifying fee,” according to the resolution.
In June, write-in candidates filed in the final days and hours of candidate qualifying, closing primaries to about half of county voters in all-Republican races for St. Johns County Commission, sheriff and Clerk of Courts.
Though Florida is a closed primary state, primaries open up to all registered voters when all candidates are from one party and no opposition would exist in the general election, according to the state constitution. Those cases are called universal primaries, which came from a 1998 state constitutional amendment, according to the Miami Herald.
But a write-in candidate, who can file without paying a fee or gathering signatures, will close the primary.
“It’s very common,” said Vicky Oakes, St. Johns County supervisor of elections.
Partisan and nonpartisan candidates have to either pay a fee or qualify by petition method by getting a certain number of valid petitions signed by registered voters.
The resolution calls the write-in candidate issue a “loophole.”
“Write-in candidates that run a sham race and manipulate the provisions of Florida election laws which are meant to broaden voter participation should be discouraged,” according to the resolution.
Florida Sen. Travis Hutson said if voters are upset they have no one to vote for, they should blame the party. He said he is not in favor of open primaries in general and if people want the write-in process to be irrelevant, “both parties should do better job of fielding candidates.”
He said later, “You’ll never see me complain about a write-in candidate,” but he also said he would be in favor of looking into avenues for more accountability.
Overall, the intent of allowing write-in candidates was about giving opportunity.
The idea behind write-in candidates was to allow people to run for office even if they couldn’t afford to pay a fee, Oakes said. But now, there’s a petition method for qualifying to run.
Of the city’s possible measure, Oakes said, “We realize any law changes such as those are up to our state Legislature. I recommend anyone that wants changes, that they contact their state representatives and senators directly.”