Secretive write-in candidates lock out Florida
Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen
August 5, 2016
TALLAHASSEE — In his secretive and impossible bid for
public office, James Bailey will accomplish only this: He will deprive
thousands of residents from voting for their state legislator.
Bailey, 28, is a write-in candidate for a state House seat in Vero
Beach, a three-hour drive from his home in Clearwater. He’s not
campaigning or raising money. He faces possible fines for refusing to
file routine campaign paperwork. He won’t answer phone calls and emails.
Yet his sham candidacy is manipulating the outcome of a race involving
four Republicans. Because only one party fielded candidates, the primary
should serve as a general election where all voters, not just
Republicans, cast ballots. Such a “universal” primary is the intent
behind a 1998 constitutional amendment passed by voters to open up
one-party contests to the entire electorate.
But this year, Bailey and 34 other people have filed as write-in
legislative candidates across Florida, exploiting a notorious loophole
that nullifies the amendment’s purpose. Even though write-in candidates
have never won an election, state courts regard them as legitimate
candidates. In races like House District 54, that means Bailey’s
candidacy shuts out independents and Democrats in the primary.
Write-ins are blocking full voter participation in six Senate districts
and 14 House districts on the Aug. 30 primary ballot, disenfranchising
1.6 million voters. Shrinking the voter pool allows candidates to tailor
messages to the extremes: the most conservative or most liberal voters
in their party. The result could mean more lawmakers at the far ends of
the political spectrum.
Election officials are fed up with the practice and the refusal of both
parties or the Legislature to fix it.
“This wink-wink, nod-nod causes people to distrust the process,” said
Mike Ertel, supervisor of elections in Seminole County. “It’s
gamesmanship. It’s been going on for years, and has to change.”
The trail of mischief is easy to follow.
Bailey, a registered Republican and Florida State University graduate,
used to work at Front Line Strategies, a Tallahassee firm that is
managing campaigns of Republican candidates in eight legislative races
where write-ins have closed primaries.
Front Line’s client in House District 54 is Lange Sykes, whose campaign
has paid the firm nearly $38,000 this election cycle.
“There’s going to be some very upset people when they go to the polls
and are told, ‘You can’t vote,’” said another candidate, the Rev. Dale
Glading, a Baptist minister. “It’s legal. But it’s not ethical.”
Neither Sykes nor Front Line founder Brett Doster responded to requests
“There’s going to be some very upset
people when they go to the polls and are told, ‘You can’t vote.’ It’s
legal. But it’s not ethical.
The Rev. Dale Glading, candidate for House
Eight attempts by the Herald/Times to reach Bailey,
who makes $31,054 as a student adviser at St. Petersburg College, were
The gate to his Clearwater complex was locked. A man who answered a call
box phone identified himself as James Bailey and said, “Oh, you want my
son,” but the young Bailey did not respond to two more messages.
More than a dozen other write-in candidates, whose name must be written
on the ballot by the voter in the November general election, were
MaryKathryn Johnson, 22, of St. Petersburg, a write-in who closed a
Republican Senate primary in a Naples-based Senate district, refused to
talk to a reporter at her home.
“I don’t want to answer any questions. Sorry,” Johnson said when asked
why she’s running in a district 150 miles away.
Johnson and a second write-in candidate closed a spirited Republican
primary between state Reps. Matt Hudson and Kathleen Passidomo. She said
neither asked her to run. Asked if she knew her candidacy would deny
thousands a chance to vote, she said, “I can’t answer any questions” and
shut the door.
Kelley Howell’s write-in papers closed a Democratic primary for a Palm
Beach County House race between former Rep. Kelly Skidmore and Emily
Howell, 47, a Democrat, did not respond to phone and email messages. She
faces possible fines for missing deadlines for campaign finance reports,
Jason Swaby, 22, a graduate student at FSU, became a write-in candidate
in Senate District 31 an hour before the June 24 filing deadline,
closing a Democratic primary among Sen. Jeff Clemens, Rep. Irv Slosberg
and newcomer Emmanuel Morel.
“Can you give me a call tomorrow? I’m making dinner,” said Swaby, who
did not respond to follow-up calls.
Both Clemens and Slosberg say they had nothing to do with Swaby’s
“I and my staff didn’t put him in there,” Slosberg said. “I wouldn’t
even know how to do the whole thing.”
Slosberg switched his candidacy and challenged Clemens an hour before
the filing deadline. Clemens said he did not expect that, and did not
“I didn’t even know I was going to have a race. How could I have
possibly anticipated that?” Clemens said.
The only write-in candidate willing to discuss his motives was
Christopher Schwantz, who filed in House District 4, an open seat in the
Panhandle, where the other five candidates are Republicans.
Schwantz has not raised any money and isn’t campaigning. He said no one
recruited him to run.
In justifying his candidacy, he said that primaries should be closed.
“The system is set up that Republicans can elect Republicans and
Democrats can elect Democrats,” he said. “I don’t want someone playing
both sides of the fence.”
But under Florida law, Democrats should be allowed to vote in the House
District 4 primary. Schwantz’s candidacy ensures that they won’t.
As born losers go, write-ins have it easy.
Party candidates whose names appear on the ballot must pay up to $1,552
or collect hundreds of signatures. Write-ins are required only to fill
out some paperwork.
They face few penalties for ignoring campaign finance laws because fines
are based on a percentage of money raised. Most write-ins raise nothing.
In all, 35 write-ins filed in state Senate and House races, but not one
closed a primary in Tampa Bay or South Florida.
On the contrary, an absence of write-ins created universal or open
primaries in five Democratic House primaries: one in Tampa, two in
Miami-Dade and two in Broward.
All voters, regardless of party, can vote in a Democratic primary for
Congress in the 24th district in Miami-Dade and part of southwest
Broward, between U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson and challenger Randal Hill.
The district has more than 126,000 voters who are not Democrats.
Four other primaries are also open, for a Palm Beach County Senate seat
and in three House districts.
But in every other region of the state, write-ins have secretly muzzled
the voices of voters.
“People don’t know about it until they are disenfranchised,” said Dave
Aronberg, the Palm Beach County state attorney who tried as a Democratic
state senator to close the loophole. “It really is the most insidious
election scam that’s commonly exploited by our politicians.”
Aronberg said it will require another constitutional amendment to close
the write-in loophole. Passage would be difficult, he said, because both
parties and moneyed interests would work to defeat the idea because open
primaries give non-partisan voters a great say in shaping the
“It benefits politicians at the expense of the voters,” he said. “It
harms our democracy. It makes people less likely to vote because it
creates more cynicism on the political process.”
A troubling trend
A record 35 write-in
candidates are running for the Legislature. No write-in has
ever come close to victory, but their presence prevents
opposing party voters and independents from voting in
one-party primaries. Write-ins have successfully closed
primary elections in six Florida Senate races this year.
District 1, Escambia, Okaloosa: Rep. Doug
Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze; Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach;
WRI: (2) Aaron Erskine, Miriam Woods
District 11, Orange: Rep. Randolph Bracy,
D-Orlando; Chuck O’Neal, D-Apopka; Bob Sindler, D-Apopka;
Gary Siplin, D-Orlando; WRI: (2) Joseph Harris, Miranda
District 12, Lake, Marion, Sumter: Rep. Dennis
Baxley, R-Ocala; David Gee, R-The Villages; Rep. Marlene
O’Toole, R-Lady Lake; WRI: Elizabeth McNutt
District 27, Lee: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto,
R-Fort Myers; Jason Maughan, R-Sanibel; WRI: Dakota Eads
District 28, Lee, Collier: Rep. Matt Hudson,
R-Naples; Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples; WRI: (2)
MaryKathryn Johnson, Raymond Mazzie
District 31, Palm Beach: Sen. Jeff Clemens,
D-Lake Worth; Emmanuel Morel, D-West Palm Beach; Rep. Irv
Slosberg, D-Boca Raton; WRI: Jason Swaby
Florida Division of Elections