Voters Claim ‘Sham Candidate’ in Play in Fla.

     (CN) — State Attorney Angela Corey’s reelection campaign is exploiting a legal loophole to deny hundreds of thousands of voters the right to weigh in on the race, a lawsuit filed by four of those voters claims.
     In a complaint filed in Duval County Circuit Court, voters from Duval, Clay and Nassau counties in northeast Florida claim that 438,896 non-Republicans will be barred from voting in the Aug. 30 primary.
     The primary, which includes three Republican candidates, was closed to non-Republican voters when Kenny Leigh — a divorce attorney who only represents men — entered the general election as a write-in candidate, the complaint says.
     According to the plaintiff voters, Leigh is a “sham” candidate and Corey supporter whose paperwork was filed by Alexander Pantinakis, Corey’s campaign manager.
     If Leigh wasn’t running, the primary would have been open to all voters in the three counties, the plaintiffs say.
     “Corey and her allies believed it would be to Corey’s political advantage to restrict the voters in the primary election,” the complaint states. “The right of citizens to participate in the choice and election of their State Attorney is of vital importance and should not be taken from them by political guile and artifice for political advantage.”
     To understand why it would make sense for Corey’s campaign to want a closed primary, and why that might be unjust to voters, it helps to know a bit about the law and also about Corey’s more formidable opponent, Melissa Nelson.
     In 1998, the Florida Constitution was amended to include the Universal Primary Amendment, which states: “If all candidates for an office have the same party affiliation, and the winner will have no opposition in the general election, all qualified electors, regardless of party affiliation, may vote in the primary elections for that office.”
     In this case, Corey is running against two other Republicans — the former head of the Nassau County SAO Wesley White, and former assistant state attorney Melissa Nelson.
     For Corey, the challenge is Nelson.
     Local newspapers have reported that high-profile attorneys urged Nelson to run based on the belief that she was the most likely person to beat Corey. “[Nelson] becomes the most credible alternative to Corey since the incumbent was first elected in 2008,” an article in the Florida Times-Union reported after Nelson entered the race.
     On the day Nelson filed her own paperwork in Tallahassee, she ran into Pantinakis, Corey’s campaign manager in the hall. Minutes later, Kenny Leigh appeared as a write-in candidate in the race. When asked by the reporters if he filed Leigh’s paperwork, Pantinakis was “coy” at first, according to Leigh denied knowing who Pantinakis was and said he had become a candidate without conferring with Corey’s campaign.
     Later, Pantinakis issued a statement.
     “I received and submitted Kenny Leigh’s documents Thursday, May 5 solely in my capacity as the Duval County Republican State Committeeman,” he wrote. “Throughout my time as State Committeeman, I have always been a proponent of ensuring that only registered Republicans select Republican nominees for office and would question any Republican candidate who would reject that idea.”
     Pantinakis then fell off the radar and hasn’t commented since. He could not be reached by Courthouse News Service.
     Nelson’s campaign manager Brian Hughes has two words for what went down: “dirty politics.”
     “More important than the act of closing the primary, there’s an integrity issue right out of the gates of the campaign,” Hughes said. “A political dirty trick was undertaken and the Corey campaign wasn’t being forthright about what they did.”
     Civil rights groups are equally unimpressed.
     “When a campaign worker of a high-ranking election official closes a primary so voters of opposing political parties can’t participate, we know our democracy is in trouble,” Mone Holder, New Florida Majority policy director, said in a press release. “Elected officials should be above reproach. They should clear barriers to the ballot box; not create them.”
     Rev. Eddie A. Hailes, Jr., Managing Director for Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights organization, said the move would disenfranchise African-American voters.
     “This last-minute political maneuver appears to be an intentional effort to deny African Americans the opportunity to participate in this important election for the State Attorney position,” he said.
     The plaintiffs are asking for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief.
     Their attorney, William Sheppard, of Sheppard, White, Kachergus & DeMaggio, P.A., of Jacksonville, Fla., could not be reached for comment.

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