Four write-in candidates have qualified to run in four separate local election contests: the races for Flagler County sheriff, clerk of court, and two county commission seats. Unlike Republican, Democratic or Independent candidates, write-in candidates don’t have to turn in hundreds of petitions to qualify, or pay the thousands of dollars required to qualify absent petitions. Write-in candidates names will not appear on any ballot. Only a line appears in their chosen race, where voters may write in the name if they so choose. And write-ins may not run in primaries.
Yet even though they have no presence on the ballot, and no right to run in a primary election, write-ins can have a disproportionate influence on a primary by shutting out most voters from casting a ballot, as is the case in two races in Flagler County. Here’s how it works: when a primary race is contested exclusively by members of one party, that primary, by Florida law, is then open to all voters–Republicans, Democrats, Independents, minor parties–because the primary actually decides the winner regardless. Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 to ensure that such open primaries be held so that voters aren’t disenfranchised.
But when a write-in files to run in such a race, the primary is automatically “closed,” because that write-in will theoretically be contesting the race with the primary’s winner in the general election. Theoretically, because in many cases in Florida, write-in candidates drop out before the general election, their work already done: the write-in strategy is used specifically to close a primary and prevent voters from other parties, or independents, from voting. (For complete background on the strategy, see this story.)
That’s the case in two races in Flagler’s elections: the clerk of court race, and a county commission race. The clerk of court race is being contested by incumbent Gail Wadsworth and Ken Mazzie. Both are Republicans. The county commission District 1 race is being contested by incumbent Alan Peterson and Charlie Ericksen. Both are Republicans. Normally, in both those races, all registered voters would get to cast a ballot in the Aug. 14 primary. But in each race, a write-in candidate has filed to run: Daniel J. Bozza in the county commission race, Paulette Dunkel in the clerk of court race. (Two other write-ins in local races won’t materially affect the outcomes of those primaries because those races have both Democrats and Republicans running.) The write-in strategy appears to be the work of a little-known hard-right group with about 100 members called the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies of Florida, which is backing Ericksen and Wadsworth (both are members of the group). By locking out Democrats and Independents from those races, the group is ensuring that moderating votes that might be cast for Peterson or Mazzie aren’t cast.
Jim O’Connell, who served on the Flagler County Commission from 2004 to 2008, wrote the brief open letter below, asking write-in candidates to withdraw. While that window is closing fast, it’s still open: a Flagler County Supervisor of Elections official said the state has yet to certify the names for the election. It has until Friday to do so, but may do so before then, giving any candidate (including write-ins) a chance to withdraw (in writing and in person at the supervisor of elections office).
I am disappointed. Your tactic to use the current Florida law that allows a write-in candidate, for the purpose of closing the primary election to one party voters only, is a wrong tactic. To my knowledge it has never been utilized against any candidate of any party in Flagler County. When it was used in the replacement of Florida Senator Tony Hill I was disappointed.
I suspect you know you have little or no possibility of being elected to the local office. By using this legal, but immoral, tactic you are deliberately disenfranchising of 40,000 Flagler County voters who are registered as Democrats, Independents, or some other minor political party.
While your actions may be legal, they are not ethical or fair. By your wholesale departure from the standard of doing what is right, 40,000 Flagler voters will be denied their right to vote.
I respectfully ask that you reconsider your motives and withdraw from the race.
Jim O’Connell, Former Chairman,
Flagler County Board of County Commissioners
Jim O’Connell can be reached by email here.