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Write-in residency requirements bill goes down in bipartisan flames in Senate panel

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As she portrayed her SB 840 as a mostly technical bill that simply clears up a legal conflict currently circulating in the courts, state Sen. Eleanor Sobel probably was not prepared for the maelstrom of criticism from both parties that befell her effort.

Following an easy and perfunctory confirmation process of a score of various agency officials — a process fraught with much more controversy than usual today — Sobel’s bill to resolve the statutory crisis that invalidated former state Rep. Jamie Grant‘s re-election last November and necessitated a special election to fill the House District 64 seat was the only bill on the docket in Senate Ethics and Elections.

It did not go as planned for the Hollywood senator.

Following her explanation of the bill, Republican state Sen. Joe Negron asked Sobel whether or not the bill might create opportunities for political folks to “create mischief” by allowing operatives or surrogates to simply file as a write-in candidate in any legislative race around the state, thereby closing the open primaries that Florida voters approved by a constitutional amendment in 1998.

Sobel responded that she wasn’t aware of many cases of that happening, and that her bill would simply make state statute comport with the Constitution.

Then the panel’s opposition to the bill really made itself known, this time from a usually friendlier corner.

Democrat Chris Smith called the proposal “a very dangerous bill” that takes public policy in “exactly the wrong direction.”

“This allows someone in Pensacola with no skin in the game to close a primary in Miami-Dade,” Smith continued.

Smith inveighed against the measure further, saying that by simply “filling out a couple sheets of paper” a bad faith actor could “subvert the will of the voters in 1998.” He concluded by saying the Legislature ought to wait for the Florida Supreme Court to finish considering the HD-64 case at issue in the bill.

State Sen. Alan Hays also chimed in, saying about Smith’s critique “I think he’s right on,” not to say write-in.

Sobel offered a defense in her close that they ought to move forward on the bill because the bill is moving in the House, and because the Legislature is properly the ultimate source of public policy.

“We’re the Legislature, we can give direction as well. We respect the Supreme Court but this issue has cost taxpayers money [for special elections],” said Sobel.

“But I can count and I will move to TP the bill,” she said, temporarily withdrawing the bill from consideration.

State Rep. Joe Geller‘s House companion bill, HB 4043, awaits a hearing in its final committee of reference tomorrow morning, in State Affairs. Sobel’s bill, should it pass Ethics and Elections with an amendment, would still face the Rules Committee.

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Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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