Starting next year, it could become more difficult for candidates to change or altogether drop party affiliation mid-campaign, as a report produced by the Florida Senate’s Committee on Ethics and Elections this month details the shortcomings of current law.  Citing Gov. Charlie Crist‘s defection from the Republican Party less than 24 hours before the federal deadline to qualify, the committee outlines what it describes as necessary steps to maintain the integrity of Florida’s electoral system.

“The issue is whether Florida law regarding candidates who change political parties while running for office is unambiguous and expansive enough to promote the state’s interests in political stability and maintaining integrity in the various routes to the ballot,” the report states.

One requirement would be that a candidate be registered with a given party for a minimum of one year prior to filing papers to qualify in an election, as well as instituting a “‘sore loser’ statute” that would effectively eliminate an individual’s ability to lose in a primary yet find ways to get onto the general election ballot.

Implicit in Florida’s candidate qualifying scheme is the notion that a candidate qualifies to run for an office as either a party candidate or an NPA, and that a party candidate who loses in the primary cannot turn around and run in the general election for the same office as an NPA (or write-in): such has been the custom and practice. However, the statutes do not specifically spell this out, and there is enough potential ambiguity that it is worth considering adoption of an express “sore loser” statute.

Leaving the door even slightly ajar for political party candidates to also qualify up-front as NPAs or to re-cast a failed primary bid as an unaffiliated, general election candidacy contravenes the State’s interests in ensuring integrity and stability of the political system and many of the other interests discussed in the context of party disaffiliation statutes. Several states have enacted an express “sore loser” statute in order to “[work] against independent candidacies prompted by short-range political goals.”

For example, California law explicitly provides that a candidate who ran in a primary election seeking a party’s nomination but was defeated is barred from running for the same (or any other) office as an independent candidate. The law also provides that a candidate may not “file nomination for a [political] party nomination and an independent nomination for the same office.” Adopting similar language would definitively close any potential loopholes in current Florida law.

There has been a spike this election cycle in independent candidates, with Crist among the most well known. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, having been defeated in the 2006 primary, famously jumped ship and eked out a victory as an independent later that year.

Following Crist’s move to independent status, he saw an immediate boost in the polls, but opened the door for a backlash from donors who felt betrayed by the last-minute switch and filed suit in a Naples court last month. While their attempt to seek class-action status was denied, state Rep. Thomas Grady, R-Naples, who brought the lawsuit on their behalf, is seeking an appeal.

The Committee on Ethics and Elections report:

Committe on Ethics and Elections – Implications of Party Switching

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