For Flagler County voters—all registered voters, regardless of party–the Aug. 30 primary election, not the Nov. 8 general election, will decide almost half the local races on the ballot.
There’s still time for more candidates to join races: qualifying doesn’t end until June 24. But as things stand today, the race for Flagler County Supervisor of Elections will be decided in the Aug. 30 primary, not on Nov 8, so will the two races for Flagler County School Board, and possibly some or all three races for Mayor and Palm Coast City Council.
In each of these races, all registered voters—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, small parties—get to cast a ballot on Aug. 30. Candidates, the two major parties and elections officials are striving to rattle voters out of the usual primary apathy to get them to the polls. In 2010 and 2014, primary turnout was 22 and 21 percent in Flagler, in 2012 it was still a dismal 25 percent.
All voters always get to participate in non-partisan elections—that is, elections that have no party primaries, including school board and Palm Coast.
But all voters also get to participate in the primary of any partisan election where only candidates of one party are running. That’s the case with the supervisor of elections race. It’s partisan: candidates run as Republican, Democratic or Independent. But this year, all three candidates—incumbent Kaiti Lenhart, Kimble Medley and Abra Seay–are Republican. If that doesn’t change by June 24, then it’s an open election. A 1998 constitutional amendment approved by 64 percent of Florida voters ensured that such primaries be open so that a fraction of the electorate doesn’t decide elections in the absence of contested primaries.
Yet absent a Democrat joining the race, there’s still a maneuver left that could close the supervisor’s race to two-thirds of the electorate anyway: someone could decide to run as a write-in candidate. It’s a cynical and transparent ploy, usually by one of the candidates or the party represented by the candidates, to exclude the more diverse, more moderate electorate and aid the more extreme of the candidates , as primary voters who actually show up at the polls tend to represent the more activist, more radical elements of either parties.
The Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies of Flagler County did just that in two county commission and the clerk of court races in 2012. In all three of those races, only Republicans were in the running. So all voters were going to get a chance to vote—until the write-in candidates joined (without having to pay a dime or gather so much as one petition, as more legitimate candidates have to do). The ploy automatically excluded Democrats and Independents from the vote, or two-thirds of Flagler’s electorate.
A primary that underscores the importance of turnout and diminishes the importance of party affiliation, at least in three races.
In the race for supervisor of elections, Seay and Lenhart have come out explicitly against the write-in ploy. “Speaking as a candidate,” Lenhart said, “I believe that a person should file to run for public office only if they truly intend to do the job, which is to serve the public and provide each eligible voter the opportunity to cast their ballot.”
Seay was even more blunt: “I favor an open primary,” she said in written answers to questions on Wednesday. “The qualifying by petition process has passed its deadline, therefore another candidate would have to qualify by paying the fee or by being a write-in. If another candidate wanted to enter the race for the right reasons (to diligently work for our community, fulfill the duties of an SOE, promote voting, etc.) then I’m all for them entering. But, if another candidate were to enter by fee or by write-in, just to close the primary then I would be adamantly against it. Their actions would deny approximately two-thirds or 66 percent (a majority) of our voters the chance to exercise their right to vote for our next Supervisor of Elections.”
Seay said the Flagler County Republican Club told her it would not be fielding a write-in candidate, and that she had “heard” that the Reagan group would not do so, either. The Reagan group has taken a more low-key approach to this election. But, Seay said, “I was told that there is some speculation that Kim Medley’s campaign will put in a write-in candidate.”
That would be a surprise: Medley has been bitterly critical of the Reagan group in the past, in part because of its incendiary tactics. Asked specifically whether she favored an open or closed primary, and whether she’d favor a write-in to close her race to all but GOP voters, Medley’s answer left at least some room for speculation: “We welcome whatever process is determined at the end of qualifying.”
Medley, subsequently contacted by phone and email about Seay’s claim, responded categorically: “Such speculation is patently false.” But asked specifically about write-in tactics intended expressly to close primaries, she did not disavow them: “Our campaign will not be the arbiter for the primary,” Medley wrote. “We will adhere to a motto learned through many years of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting; we will ‘Be Prepared’.”
If there is no write-in candidate in the elections supervisor race, the vote on Aug. 30, regardless of the outcome, will decide the winner, even if the top vote-getter gets less than 50 percent, Lenhart said.
That’s also the case with the school board races. Two seats are up: The District 3 seat held by Colleen Conklin, who is running again, and the District 5 seat held by Sue Dickinson, who is not running. Two Democrats and two Republicans are facing off in District 5, and in District 3, it’s one Democrat against one Republican. But all voters, regardless of party affiliation, may vote in both races, and the winner in each is the outright winner, whatever the margin. Two years ago, for example, incumbent John Fischer faced three challengers. He lost by 23 votes to Janet McDonald, with Fischer and McDonald each getting fewer than 33 percent. Yet McDonald was the declared winner (even though her 4,087 votes represented just 5.8 percent of the registered electorate: that was a reflection of the very poor turnout of 19 percent.)
Since the school board race is non-partisan, the write-in ploy would have no effect there. Nor would it in the Palm Coast City Council elections, which are also ostensibly non-partisan. But in Palm Coast, the top vote-getter in the Aug. 30 primary is declared the winner only if he or she clears the 50 percent hurdle. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters go on to a run-off in the general election on Nov. 8.
Twelve candidates are in the running in Palm Coast—four for mayor, five in the District 1, and three in the District 3 seat. The districts are meaningless, as far as voters are concerned: all seats are considered at-large, in that all Palm Coast voters, no matter their district (or their party affiliation) may cast a ballot in all three races. The Republican-Democratic breakdown between the candidates is roughly even, and given the number of candidates, it is more likely than not that some of the races will yield a run-off.
The remaining races on the primary ballot are more traditional primaries: four Republicans are contesting the county commission seat held by incumbent Charlie Ericksen, with one Democrat—Jason DeLorenzo—in the running. Democratic incumbents Barbara Revels and George Hanns have not pulled challengers in the primary, but four Republicans are contesting their primaries between the two seats, guaranteeing a primary and a general election in all three races, and making the write-in ploy in those races moot.
The sheriff’s race is the most active of the season, with incumbent Democrat Jim Manfre drawing one opponent in Larry Jones, making it the county’s only contested Democratic primary. Six Republicans and one Independent are also running, guaranteeing a three-way general election unless a candidate drops out. The tax collector and property appraiser races are uncontested, the clerk of court race barely so.