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Politics

'Ridiculous' Petition Rules Snag Congressional Candidates in Florida

April 18, 2012 - 6:00pm

Several congressional candidates in Florida have been tripped up by arcane rules governing their qualifying petitions, Sunshine State News has learned.

In lieu of paying a $10,000 fee to get on the ballot, candidates can gather 2,298 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the upcoming elections.

Karen Harrington, seeking the Republican nomination to run against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fort Lauderdale, started circulating petitions last year. The signatures were collected quickly, but then hit a snag.

Because Harrington's petitions bore the words "U.S. Congress" instead of "U.S. House of Representatives," state election officials said her paperwork could be subject to challenge and possible disqualification.

Not wanting to take any chances, Harrington spokesman Anthony Bustamante said the campaign changed the wording and recirculated the petitions.

"We finished it up quickly," Bustamante said.

Even incumbents have been snagged, and at least one will pay the price -- literally.

Rep. Tom Rooney's spokesman Michael Mahaffey related, "Unfortunately, due to a printing error, Congressman Rooneys 6,000 signed petitions were not eligible.

"While he clearly has the support to qualify by petition, he will likely pay the qualifying fee," Mahaffey said of the Tequesta Republican.

Petitions for Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Orlando, also contained the offending "U.S. Congress" language and, thus, had to be revised and recirculated. A campaign spokeswoman said she expects the final batch of corrected petitions to be submitted shortly.

Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando, a 10-term congressman, had his petitions turned back this year because they included a signature line in Spanish.

"It's been accepted in the past, but not now, thanks to an April 9 administrative order barring the use of Spanish," said a Mica campaign spokesman.

"We were trying to help out the good voters of District 7. This is a disservice, but we're getting [the petitions] fixed."

A lengthy April 4 memo to supervisors of elections from Gary Holland, assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of State, detailed some of the changes affecting congressional campaign petitions.

"The candidate petition form requires 'the title of the office being sought' to be placed on the form.'U.S. Congress' is not a title of an office," Holland wrote.

"Congress consists of two houses:The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.Thus, by placing 'U.S. Congress' on the form, it does not specify an office."

Holland's directive goes on to advise local supervisors of elections:

"If you cannot reasonably determine which house of Congress to which the petition applies from the face of the petition, the petition will be invalid."

Holland does, however, grant latitude in regard to other verbiage, particularly in designating the specific number of a congressional district, since reapportionment maps have not been approved.

Because district lines remain unofficial, petition signatures can be gathered from anywhere in the state. And, conceivably, a candidate who declares in one district could switch to another after the boundaries are finalized.

Holland cites a series of hypothetical examples that would pass muster:

  • "Dist 8 Congressman -- valid for U.S. representative, District 8 (even though district numbers are not to be on this years petitions) -- its clear that congressman refers to the U.S. Congress and District 8 makes it a House of Representatives candidate since the U.S. Senate does not have districts.
  • "U.S. Congressman 8th District -- valid for same reason as above.
  • "Senator valid only if the form specifies the office is either U.S. or state Senate.
  • "Congressman valid since congressman typically refers to the U.S. representative and district numbers need not be present on forms this year.
  • "Congressional Representative valid for same reason immediately above
  • "Congressional Rep valid for same reason immediately above, plus Rep is understood to be an abbreviation for representative.
  • "Congressman District 7 valid for District 7, U.S. House for same reasons stated in first example above."

Because of unapproved use of the word "Congress," both state Reps. Paige Kreegel and Gary Aubuchon had to re-word and re-circulate their qualifying petitions in their bids to succeed Rep. Connie Mack, R-Naples.

"Unfortunately, the Florida Division of Elections in Tallahassee has decided,in their infinite wisdom, that voters may not understand what 'United States Congress' means, and that we now have to use the words congressional representative on the ballot petitions. That certainly clarifies things!" said Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda.

While both CD 19 candidates say they're on track for qualifying, political operatives share Kreegel's disdain for what they view as picayune bureaucratic games.

"I find it ridiculous that a petition with 'U.S. Congress' on it would be thrown out. It is clear the voter intends to place that individual on the ballot for U.S. House of Representatives," said Brian Graham, a Republican consultant whose clients include 6th Congressional District candidate Bev Slough.

In any event, all congressional candidates must submit the requisite signatures, or cash, by May 7 in order to qualify for the fall elections.

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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