Regular as clockwork, a spoiler attempting to close a primary showed up just before the noon deadline for qualifying Friday, only to be tripped up by the very statute he was attempting to exploit. Grady Peeler, Trinity tax preparer, lover of liberty and, after this episode, borderline gadfly, was all set to see to it that none but Republicans decided the Pasco County Commission District 4 showdown between Henry Wilson, the incumbent, and Mike Wells, son of Pasco’s longtime property assessor, which would have been his right as a Bill-of-Rights-honoring American except for one thing: He has an address problem. Peeler, who previously filed as a write-in candidate in 2008 (for Pasco Republican State Committeeman) and 2010 (closing a three-way race in the GOP state representative primary won by Richard Corcoran), failed to fully appreciate the requirement that he live in the district on the day he filed, rather than the day he would have taken office, as is the case for candidates whose names appear on the ballot. There is abundant good sense in that simple restriction, because it properly limits the pool of last-instant insurgents with little more than mischief on their minds. Your second cousin from Crawfordville shouldn’t be able to show up on qualifying day, file write-in papers to scuttle a universal election, then vanish back into the Apalachicola National Forest.
Not that Peeler was exclusively motivated by his desire to close the primary (as we shall see below), and not that there’s anything wrong with that motivation anyhow. It will come as no surprise to faithful readers of this column (for whom I am relentlessly grateful) that I am no fan of Florida’s universal primary statute. In brief, where the survivor of a primary election faces no opposition in the general election, the primary becomes the general election, and everyone can vote in it. Among my complaints is the statute encourages sloth among rivals to an area’s majority party. The very existence of universal primaries tamps down the urgency of finding qualified, capable candidates to compete, and without that urgency, how can minority parties ever hope to change their status? Moreover, the construction of the statute often precipitates mischief — how could it be otherwise? — by allowing write-in candidates (who pay no fee, gather no petitions or otherwise invest time, energy or treasury) to qualify as general-election opposition. Don’t expect me to gainsay that, either. Giving write-ins easy access to play in or disrupt the electoral system represents a clear extension of the First Amendment’s guarantees regarding expression and petitioning the government. Ballot-access warriors also argue that restricting write-ins brings up certain equal protection issues in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. And it’s not like write-ins never have, never do, affect the outcome of elections. As recently as 2010, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski retained her seat in the U.S. Senate as a write-in after losing the GOP primary. Of course, such dramatic outcomes are rare. In a message, Peeler wrote he wanted the primary closed because, he writes, “Republicans who vote in the primary tend to be better-informed about the candidates, particularly their Republican candidates. ... By running as a write-in, I had hoped to remove some of the name-value factor that would have favored Wells.” Now he frets something besides merit will decide the outcome. See there? A perfectly noble ambition. Too bad about that address thing.