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Judge disqualifies write-in challenger to Rep. Jamie Grant, opens primary


Another conflicting ruling about residency requirements for write-in candidates means the issue is even more likely to be appealed and challenged all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Leon County Circuit Judge Angela Dempsey decided Thursday that Donald John Matthews is not eligible to run as a write-in candidate for the House District 64 seat in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties because he was not living inside the district at the time of qualifying.

Just last week, a different Leon County Circuit judge ruled the opposite on a similar case. Judge George Reynolds concluded that write-in candidates are only required to live in the district on the date of election and allowed one to remain in the race for House District 69 in Broward County.

Write in candidates have never won a Florida legislative race, but they can be a game-changer during primary elections. According to Florida law, if all of the candidates in a particular race are from the same political party then all voters, regardless of their political affiliation, can cast ballots in the primary since that will essentially be the only election to determine the winner of the seat.

If a write-in candidate enters the race then it automatically triggers a general election and the primary election is closed to voters of other political parties or with no party affiliation. This quirk in state law is often used as a tool to keep voters with no party or opposing party affiliations of voting in races where the only viable candidates are members of one political party.

When it comes to the recent rulings about write-in candidates, parties to both cases said they are considering an appeal. That could take months. In the meantime, candidates and supervisors of elections are grappling with the ramifications.

In the House District 64 race, Dempsey's ruling called for the current closed primary between incumbent Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, and fellow Republican challenger Miriam Steinberg to be open to all voters and moved to the same date as the November general election. A spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections said officials are still working to understand the ruling and its effect on the primary that would have initially been closed, meaning only Republicans could cast votes. Absentee ballots have already been mailed out.

"They’ve set things up for a final showdown in the [Florida] Supreme Court," said Michael Steinberg, who filed the initial lawsuit on behalf of his wife. Steinberg also represented the person who filed suit against the write-in candidate in the other case with the conflicting ruling.