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Investigators: Write-in candidates close primaries, cost millions of Floridians chance to choose state legislators

8:12 PM, Aug 14, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Florida -- Florida state law allows all voters in a district - regardless of party affiliation - to cast ballots in a primary if all candidates for the office are from the same party. 

However, the 10 News Investigators found no-name write-in candidates - many of whom have no intention of even campaigning - have turned a number of "open" primaries into "closed" primaries so the majority of voters won't have a say in who represents them in Tallahassee.

"You know whoever wins that primary is going to win the general," said USF political expert Dr. Seth McKee, acknowledging write-in candidates' impact is much more significant than the few votes they'll actually get.

Because Florida Democrats were unable to find candidates to run in many districts, last-minute qualifiers closed off dozens of elections.

"You have in (my) House district a large amount of Democrats and independents that will have absolutely no say of who their next state representative will be," said State Sen. Mike Fasano, who is now running for the State House.

Fasano faces two Republican challengers on Tuesday: Michael Kennedy and Jim Mathieu. Kennedy has done little fundraising or campaigning, while Mathieu convinced his next-door neighbor to declare his intentions with the state to run as a write-in candidate.

"The 'election' is in the fall," Mathieu said.  "This is the 'primary.' The purpose of a 'primary' is to determine who will bear the name 'Republican' or 'Democrat' next to their name in the general election."

Mathieu admitted his neighbor, Joe Verola, has no real shot at winning as a write-in.  But maintains closing the election to only Republicans is the right thing to do, regardless of what provisions are in the law.

In House District 36, Republicans make up 35% of registered voters.  Another 38% of voters are Democrats, while 27% are registered to other parties or none at all.

STATS: District registration stats

Verola, who only switched his party affiliation to Democrat in May, admits he doesn't stand much of a chance at winning.

In fact, Verola admits he has a better chance at discovering any illegitimate children he may have fathered in the past (he wrote a book about it) than he does winning this election.  But he says he hopes his actions help Mathieu defeat the well-funded Fasano.

"Jim said if someone comes in as a write-in candidate, it would close the primary to the Republican Party," Verola said.  "So I said, 'you know what? I think I'll do that."

Other closed primaries

In the hotly-contested Senate District 22 race between Republicans Jeff Brandes and Jim Frishe, only 38% of voters will decide the election after a life-long Republican, Ray Baker, declared his intentions to run as a write-in.  Baker has yet to report a single campaign contribution or expenditure.

In Polk and Orange counties, only 39% of voters in Senate District 15 will choose between heavyweights Kelli Stargel and Jack Myers after a Democrat, Stego Blue, filed to run.  Blue didn't return several calls for comment and has reported minimal campaign action.

And around the state, numerous other battles have turned into Republican- or Democrat-only affairs when no-name write-in candidates have closed the primaries.

MAPS: State House, Senate Districts here

McKee says around Tampa Bay, Democrats deserve some of the blame too, since they failed to field competitive candidates in Democratic-dominated districts.

"In the example of Brandes/Frishe," McKee pointed out, "a Democrat has every opportunity to show up and contest that race.  So that's sort of a lost opportunity."

Republicans will likely get the only say in Senate District 17 as well after the only Democrat, Wes Johnson, pulled out of the race.  The primary remains closed, as Pasco County and Hillsborough County Republicans decide who replaces Jim Norman in Tallahassee.

"Maybe the rules need to be looked at again" 

Senator Fasano, who voted against a Democrat-sponsored bill several years ago that would have prohibited write-in candidates from closing off primaries admits the bill may have been a good one.

"My opponent...played by the rules," Fasano added, "but maybe the rules need to be looked at again."

Mathieu would like to re-visit the law too.  He says the provision to open up primaries if opposing parties fail to field candidates should be revoked.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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