Judge rules on HD 64 write-in candidate, raising questions on GOP primary

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 A court ruling made one Florida job particularly challenging — that of Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.

Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey ruled on Thursday that Donald John Matthews is not eligible to be a write-in candidate for House District 64, where the currently closed GOP primary between incumbent Rep. James Grant and Miriam Steinberg is just over three weeks away.

Matthews was not living inside the district at the time of qualifying.

Dempsey’s ruling takes the closed primary and opens it to all voters, as well as moving it to November 4, the date of the general election.

Grant, a Tampa Republican, was first elected in 2010 to represent District 47. Redistricting in 2012 put him in District 64, which covers parts of Polk and Hillsborough County and the towns of Polk City, Kathleen and Gibsonia.

Officials are working to understand Dempsey’s ruling and its possible effect on a  primary once limited to Republicans only. Absentee ballots in the race have already been mailed out — 140,000 of them.

The ruling also conflicts with a decision by Circuit Judge George Reynolds last month about residency requirements for Ronald Bray, a write-in candidate running for Broward County’s House District 96. Other legislative candidates are not required to live in their districts until Election Day.

The contradictory rulings almost guarantee an appeal of the decision.

In an attempt to address the situation with write-in candidates, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring write-ins to reside in the district for which they file. Typically, candidates qualify by either paying the state qualifying fees, which could run as high as $1,000, or collect enough signatures based on a percentage of voters in the district.

Write-in candidates are not required to do either. The trade-off is that their names do not appear on the ballot.

In this election cycle, there are 26 write-in candidates in state House or Senate races. With 14 of those races, the election closes to only Democratic or Republican voters.

The seemingly contradictory rulings prove how complex the issue can be.

Reynolds’ interpretation means a write-in candidate is only required to live in the area on the date of the election while Dempsey ruled to disqualify a write-in candidate because he did not physically live inside the district at the time of qualifying, although the candidate is registered to vote in the district.

“(I am) very glad I am not the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections right now,” said Marian Johnson, senior vice president of political operations for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, in an email.

Hillsborough County elections officials, voters – and donors – now need to figure out what to do next.

“Does this mean you can contribute to the candidates for the primary and the general,” Johnson asked.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.