First term Republican Congressman Steve Southerland (R-Tallahassee) got excellent news the other day as a Circuit Court Judge ruled against former moderate Republican State Senator Nancy Argenziano’s attempts to re-register as a Democrat in order to run for Congress. Argenziano sued the state over last year’s elections law overhaul that requires qualified candidates to not have been a member of another party for at least one year if they want to run in the other party. Argenziano claimed there was confusion when she attempted to re-register as a Democrat and thus the former legislator is currently registered as an Independent.
Florida’s election laws have been passed deliberately by a partisan legislature with the express intent of disenfranchising voters and making it difficult for disaffected Republicans to run for office as Democrats. The experience of Charlie Crist’s close flirtation to becoming a Democrat due to White House intervention in April 2010 as reported by The Politico (Crist ended up becoming an Independent after Kendrick Meek refused to drop out of the US Senate race leading to a split in the anti-Rubio vote ) led the Legislature to take action. This is especially ironic given the GOP’s own recent history with sitting elected officials switching parties.
The new laws could be held responsible for disenfranchising voters, something we’ll focus on in a future commentary piece. Today, we will focus on the party registration issue for candidates. The fundamental reason for party primaries is to properly vet candidates and choose someone who represents the values of your party to face the other party in a general election. Previous election law revisions were debatable in their partisan impact but the 2011 revision was unmistakably political.
When the Legislature eliminated runoff elections in 2001, they made the opportunity for candidates to run in party primaries more accessible as potential officeholders who are not well funded no longer need to gain 50% of the vote to avoid a second, costly election just a month later. But the history of Florida Primaries in the 1970s and 1980s reminded us that the Democrats’ stronger candidates generally finished second in primaries and then overtook the first place finisher in a runoff.
Argenziano now has a decision to make. If she runs as an NPA, Southerland’s re-election, already likely, is assured. While the Democrats currently have four candidates running for the seat, the district has trended heavily Republican over the past ten years. But Argenziano, a proven vote getter who benefited from nasty campaigns and the 2002 redistricting which drew Richard Mitchell (D-Japser) into a seat he could not win. However, even in the State House beginning in 1997, she bucked the GOP leadership regularly and spoke with the type of freedom we can only wish most Democrats in the state would.
Argenziano and other former Republican officeholders, disaffected by the rightward turn of the state party over the past several years, are ready made Democratic candidates. Yet new laws make it virtually impossible to switch parties and run without a “waiting period” and limit the opportunity for voters of a particular party to freely express their choice on potential nominees. If someone switches from Republican to Democrat tomorrow, it should be the right of the registered Democrats of the area to determine whether to accept them or not, not of the Legislature or Courts.
Under this law, there will be more Nancy Aregenziano’s and Charlie Crist’s. It’s ironic that the GOP, who regularly benefited from party switching of sitting officeholders during their ascent into the legislative majority. What the Republicans are doing is rigging election law in order to give them an advantage in enforcing their ideological dogma on their office holders and potential candidates. The Democratic Party is worse for it but so is Democracy.