Florida Justices OK Nonpartisan County Races

(CN) – A Florida county can continue to hold nonpartisan elections for offices such as sheriff and tax collector as long as those races are decided only in the general election, not the primary, the state’s high court ruled Friday.

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

In a 4-3 decision, the Florida Supreme Court found Orange County’s charter amendment requiring nonpartisan elections for sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser, comptroller, clerk of courts and supervisor of elections does not violate state election laws. The ruling reversed an earlier appeals court decision.

The legal fight began when former Sheriff Jerry Demings, Tax Collector Scott Randolph and Property Appraiser Rick Singh sued the county after voters overwhelmingly passed charter amendments in 2014 and 2016 requiring term limits and nonpartisan elections for county constitutional officers. The races for county mayor, county commission, school board and judiciary are already nonpartisan.

After the referendums passed, a circuit court and appellate court ruled the county did not have the authority to make the changes. Teresa Jacobs, who was Orange County mayor until last month, vowed to take the fight to the state’s highest court.

“Whether the county constitutional officers must stand for election in partisan or nonpartisan elections is not a matter set forth in the Florida election code and is, therefore, not preempted,” Justice Peggy Quince wrote in the majority’s opinion.

The majority did, however, strike down the portion of the charter amendments that required those county constitutional officers to be elected during the primary election.

Under the amendments, the race would only go to the general election if no candidate received a majority of the vote in the primary election. In that scenario, only the two candidates with the most votes in the primary would have advanced to the general election.

“The portion of the Orange County ordinance that requires such an election to be held at the primary election, however, is inconsistent with section 100.041, Florida Statutes (2018), which requires that county constitutional officers appear on the general election ballot,” Quince wrote.

Justices Barbara Pariente, Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga joined Quince’s opinion.

Chief Justice Charles Candady and Justices Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson disagreed in a strongly-worded dissent authored by Polston.

“The majority’s decision blatantly disregards the language of the Florida Election Code, which expressly preempts the field of regulating elections to the state,” Polston wrote. “It also ignores an obvious and impermissible conflict between the Florida Election Code and the Orange County ordinance: While the Florida Election Code permits candidates nominated by major parties in the primary election to appear on the general election ballot for county constitutional offices, the Orange County ordinance prohibits it.”

The dissenting justices noted that state law does not expressly list statewide offices as partisan either, but candidates are allowed to put their political party on the ballot.

The debate surrounding nonpartisan elections can be surprisingly partisan.

Local Democratic Party groups and civil rights organizations like the NAACP believe the charter amendments are a way to dilute minority votes and maintain Republican seats in largely Democratic counties.

Roughly 42 percent of Orange County voters are Democrats and 26 percent are registered Republican, according to the Orange County elections supervisor’s office.

Former County Mayor Jacobs, who championed the nonpartisan elections, is a Republican. The three county officers who brought the lawsuit are Democrats.

Jacobs said in a phone interview Friday that the ruling “puts Orange County voters back in control of their elections.”

She said it could lead to similar referendums in other counties.

“I think there’s a growing number of people that are no-party affiliation or disenchanted with partisan politics,” she said. “I would be very surprised if it doesn’t continue to grow.”

Jacobs admits partisanship can play in role in the issue of nonpartisan elections, but insists her political beliefs did not influence her decision to fight for the charter amendments. Nonpartisan elections at the county level allow for more moderate candidates, she said.

“I think that the public is better served when those running are running to represent the people instead the party,” Jacobs said.

The NAACP successfully fought a similar proposal in Leon County, home to the state capital Tallahassee, last year. Hillsborough County also nixed a proposed referendum after the appellate decision in the Orange County case.

Six other counties have charter amendments similar to Orange County’s and Friday’s ruling could prompt more counties to follow suit. 

The former sheriff who filed the lawsuit, Demings, is now county mayor. In a statement to Courthouse News, Demings said the 2014 ballot initiative “embodied complex political and legal issues.”

“The voters deserved for the issues to be clarified by the courts and we have a ruling that, while imperfect, allows us to move forward,” he said. “As mayor, I will work with the Orange County supervisor of elections to ensure elections of our constitutional officers comply with Florida law.”

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