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Lee Voter Freedom group wants open primaries

By Staff | Oct 17, 2017

There’s a new activist group in town.

In Lee County, county commission races are partisan. Closed party primaries are held in August and general elections in November. If there are only two candidates of one party who have filed to run for office, then the primary becomes an open election in which all registered voters can cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

There’s a loophole, however, and one that’s caused more than one candidate heartburn: the write-in.

If there are two people of one party running for office, someone can file as a write in and have no intention to run, just to close the primary vote.

Dick Anderson, the losing Republican candidate for the District 3 seat in 2016, believes that loophole impacted the outcome. Now, he’s on a quest to change how commissioners are elected.

He and 25 other members of the community have formed the Lee Voter Freedom group, whose goal it is to get a referendum on the November 2018 ballot to open the primaries and make the commissioners races non-partisan, similar to the process to elect Lee County School Board members and the six municipalities in Lee County.

Anderson said those who oppose the idea of non-partisan, open primaries are either “self-serving or confused.” Some people have told him concerns about being uncertain where a candidate stands on issues if they didn’t know what party they were running under.

“That’s a little ridiculous,” Anderson said. “Parties already endorse non-partisan School Board candidates.”

Anderson argues that in the situation of candidates of the same party and one write in are running, the election is decided in the primary by only one party. Primaries could become a growing problem for voters as more and more register as independents.

“Independent voters are growing, too. They’re tired of the party politics,” Anderson said. “It seems like the ethical thing to do.”

Anderson ran as a Republican in the 2016 District 3 race. His opponent was incumbent Republican Larry Kiker. The day before filing ended, Eli Zonana of Lehigh Acres submitted for a write-in. Zonana never campaigned. So, the Aug. 30 primary faced the two Republicans off. A total of 64,808 votes were cast between Kiker and Anderson, and Anderson lost by 1,016 votes. And when the general election arrived, Kiker won the seat with 223,767 votes (Zonana got 275).

In Anderson’s opinion, that means 32,912 of the 408,457 registered voters got to select Kiker.

“It’s hard for a county commissioner to say, yes, I represent all the voters,” Anderson said. “If you do then you should let all the voters decide.”

Lee Voter Freedom needs 7 percent of the electorate to sign the petition to get a referendum on the ballot – that’s 36,000 signatures – by February. The referendum would ask voters to approve an amendment to the Lee County Charter for open, nonpartisan elections. The group has a plethora of events planned, about two a week, all of which can be found on the website, leevoterfreedom.com or on the Facebook page. Petitions are also available on the website, but they must be physically mailed in.

“One party with one primary is old thinking,” Anderson said.

The group held a press conference Tuesday on the steps of the Old County Courthouse in Fort Myers, just as the Lee County Commissioner’s meeting was set to begin. Anderson, founding Chairman of the Estero Council of Community Leaders Don Eslick and local attorney Leland Garvin spoke on behalf of the group, explaining its mission and asking for signatures and volunteers.

“Let’s allow all of Lee County to decide who represents them,” Garvin said.

Former District 3 Commissioner Ray Judah is backing the group. Judah served on the commission from 1988 to 2012, winning his first election as a Democrat and switching to a Republican in subsequent elections.

Judah’s confident that should the signatures be collected, the referendum will receive “overwhelming” support.

“There’s no question this will help level the playing field and bring accountable representation,” he said. “This is not about Dick Anderson, this is about the future of a healthy, representative local government.”

Judah also cited growing independent voters as a good reason to open the primary or disband party politics at the county level.

Republicans still throw a healthy lead in Lee County. According to demographic totals of the 2016 general election from the Supervisor of Elections, 327,123 ballots were cast, and 158,468 of them were Republican. Democrats had 88,992, “Other” had 79,136 and Libertarians had 527.

District 4 County Commissioner Brian Hamman and Anderson exchanged words during a Lee Voter Freedom presentation to Business people United for Political Action Committee (BUPAC) on Oct. 12. Hamman said asked at the forum if Anderson would be pushing the issue if he hadn’t lost in his primary. Anderson responded with “sure,” but then asked what his results had to do with what he’s calling “voter suppression.”

“You want to know where a candidate is coming from on issues,” Hamman said in a later interview.

Building a road might seem like it’s not a partisan issue, he said, but a commissioner’s party affiliation can direct the policy on that kind of issue. A Republican might want to hire a private contractor; a Democrat might want the government to build it.

Hamman said he was offended that Anderson seemed to dismiss the importance of the General Election.

He said if the Democratic Party in Lee County can’t put up a candidate, that’s their problem.

“I don’t think it’s fair to let Democrats choose the Republican candidate,” he said. “I don’t see why because one person lost their race, we have to change how we vote.”

But, Hamman said he would support the effort to take out the write-in loophole, an iniative that another group is already investigating. The Florida Constitutional Revision Commission is touring Florida to consider several constitutional amendments, one of which would revise the rules around a write-in candidate that would eliminate the write-in loophole.

“The write-in, I’m not a fan of it personally,” Hamman said. “Some people genuinely run as a write-in, but I don’t like how it’s been used.”

Hamman, who lives in Cape Coral, said he’s seen a non-partisan council in action in the municipality he lives in, and doesn’t think it works as well as Anderson would hope. In Cape Coral and Fort Myers’ city council elections in 2015, the turnout was 12 percent for the open primary and 14 percent, or about 21,898 votes, for the November general.

“Even in nonpartisan races, there is low voter turnout,” he said. “Opening the elections there has not increased turn out.”

Yoseph Tedros, the Chair of the Lee County Democratics, thinks nonpartisan elections at the county level could help more people be involved and open up the discussion on local issues.

Tedros said the local Democratic party has not had the chance to vote on an official stance, but he personally is in favor of the ideas coming forward from Lee Voter Freedom.

“I think there is a trend in the country where politics is not working that well,” he said. “We’re not getting best candidates or best solutions at what’s ailing Lee County, what’s ailing Florida, or the country. People are more spread out and compromise is a dirty word – changes need to happen.”

Making elections nonpartisan would open up the vote and bring more people in to participate, Tedros believes, and that makes these ideas good ones. He thinks nonpartisan elections could encourage better discussion and better ideas for solutions rather than dividing voters by party ideas. Candidate forums and discussions will educate people about a candidate’s stance on issues.

“The D and the R are not as important,” he said. “We need a better solution than what we have now and through discussion you can summarize where people are coming from. This is an excellent mechanism.”

Judah said he believed the county race should be about the individual, not the party they’re running in.

“Even if you get rid of the write-in, then special interests could still get someone to run as something else and close out the primary,” he said.

Special interests’ financial backing also poses a problem to local participation in politics, Judah said – Anderson also said these proposed changes wouldn’t prevent special interests from backing a non-partisan candidate.

But in Judah’s opinion, issues like building roads, managing drainage and other local issues shouldn’t be partisan, they should be about finding the best solution.

“It doesn’t have validity in the local level,” he said. “People should be focused on that individual and what they can contribute.”

Other Republicans don’t feel the same way as Judah or Anderson.

The Lee County Republicans are against the initiative, said Doris Cortese, Vice Chair of the Lee County Republican Executive Committee. She believes the Lee Voter Freedom’s ideas arise from a candidate who lost and is now trying to muddy the voting waters.

Cortese also serves as the president of the Lee Republican Women Federated.

“It’s a ploy by those who didn’t win to thin the lines so people are uncertain about whom they’re voting for,” she said.

The partisan election process is important because it helps voters, many of whom don’t spend copious time researching candidates, select who to vote for, she said. While the write-in loophole may be “iffy” it does ensure that only Republicans are voting for the Republican candidates in the primary.

“(Voters) know Republicans stand for ‘this’ and Democrats stand for ‘this’ and then they can decide who to vote for,” Cortese said. “You know that you are voting for people who are like-minded.”