FOpinions_-Smaller-Cropped-300x108Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 11, 2016 1:00 a.m.


This year Nassau County voters will face a series of elections to decide local, state and federal races. The election cycle will begin with the Presidential Preference Primary on March 15, followed by other primaries and the School Board election in August, and the General Election in November.

Florida+Primary+ElectionNassau County residents need to act soon to register to vote in these important races. And as important, all current and potential voters need to declare a party preference in order to vote in the primaries that are most important to them. If you want to vote in the Presidential Preference Primary you must register – or change your voter registration – by February 16. Only registered Democrats will be able to vote in the Democrat Presidential Preference Primary; only registered Republicans will be able to vote in the Republican Presidential Preference Primary. Following the March Presidential Preference Primary, voters will again be able to change their party affiliation by August 1 in preparation for local primaries this summer.

Many Fernandina Observer readers have come to the realization that elections are complicated, and that laws regarding voter registration, qualifying for election, election finance and the elections themselves are subject to change, depending on voter referendums and legislative action. And as we have come to learn, somehow Florida elections seem to be just a little bit more complicated and subject to scrutiny than those in other states.

This article will highlight some quirks of Florida primary elections and relate the problems with confusion over primary races to past and current Nassau County races.

Primary Elections

Grunge American flag

While we in Nassau County—or more broadly, all of Florida—operate politically under what is termed a closed political primary system, that is not the case around the nation, where only eleven states hold closed primaries, defined as elections limited to registered voters of a particular party. Another eleven states hold what are called open primaries, where party affiliation does not matter, and registered voters can cross over party lines to vote in whichever primary they choose.

Four states hold what have been termed “Top Two Primaries.” In these states, all the candidates are listed on the ballot and the top two vote getters face off in the general election. The top two may be from the same political party or no party at all. This model is not used for presidential primaries in any state, but may be used for state or local office contests.

Currently 24 states hold primary elections that are some sort of a hybrid between open and closed primaries. For information on which state conducts which type of election visit the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures:

Universal Primary Contest

images-2What seems to have added confusion to the primary election in Florida is something called the Universal Primary Contest, created as a result of Constitution Revision No. 11, adopted by the voters of the state in 1998. This allows for all registered voters regardless of party affiliation to vote in a primary election if the winner of that election will face no opposition in the General Election. This change was made to address concerns raised by voters in counties where one party dominated. But it is still confusing, because whoever wins this Universal Primary in August is not declared elected until the General Election in November, leaving many folks to think that they can decide to run between August and November, and that is just not so. All candidates for the General Election must qualify to run by a date that occurs prior to the primary election.

2014 Primary election confusion in Nassau County

It appears that the 2014 primary election was confusing to many local non-Republicans, who did not understand that while voting in the District 2 Nassau County Commission contest was restricted to registered Republicans, voting in the District 4 race was not. In that race, two Republicans—Barry Holloway and George Spicer– squared off against each other, and yet all registered voters could have cast a ballot, regardless of political affiliation. Holloway, who had been heavily favored in a contest against a political newcomer, lost the race by 176 votes with 634 undervotes in that contest. An undervote means that while the voter cast a ballot, the voter for reasons unknown did not vote in this particular race.

Were those 634 undervotes in this race a result of confusion over the ability to vote in the Universal Primary by non-Republicans? We’ll never know for sure, but I can tell you that several people have told me that they would have voted for Holloway but did not know that they could. These people were confused, despite Nassau County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon’s attempt to explain the situation via sample ballots mailed before the primary election.

Write-in candidates

ShowImageAnd that brings us to another confusing bit: write-in candidates. These are candidates who qualified in a manner that does not allow for their names to appear on the ballot. However, a space is provided for the candidate’s name to be written on the general election ballot. A person qualifying as a write-in candidate is not required to pay a filing fee, election assessment, or party assessment. Such candidates may or may not have a registered affiliation with a political party. Write-ins must also qualify by the qualifying date set by the state, which precedes the primary election.

There are those who say that the only reason for a write-in candidate, who generally is far from contention with any candidate backed by a major political party, is to act as spoiler. The write-in candidate, who has a pretty easy ride when it comes to filing and paying fees, prevents a primary from being considered a Universal Primary Contest. In effect, this candidate turns what should have been an open primary into a closed primary because the write-in candidate will be a candidate in the General Election to face whoever wins the primary election.

What happens in fact, however, is that the write-in candidate provides insurance to those candidates in the primary contest that they only need to campaign to attract votes from registered members of their own party. Other voters do not matter in their contests. Following the primary, often the write-in candidate just withdraws from the race, allowing the primary winner to face no opposition in the General Election.

Even when some write-ins remain in the race, they have little effect on the outcome of the General Election. Since their names are not allowed to appear on the ballot, they must rely heavily on word-of-mouth and privately financed campaigns to attract attention to them or their particular cause. It is difficult to gain traction with the electorate under such circumstances. If voters choose to cast a ballot for a write-in, they must know how to spell the candidate’s name in some reasonable facsimile to the candidate’s name on file, and be able to print or write well enough that it can be deciphered by election machines and Elections Office staff.

The 2014 election for District 2 Nassau County Commissioner is an example of what could have been a Universal Primary Contest between two qualified Republican candidates – Mike Boyle and Steve Kelley – that was converted into a closed primary by the write-in candidate Gene Alley. In my conversation with Mr. Alley at the time, he insisted that he was running on principle, not to block non-Republicans from participating in the election. Neither Boyle nor Kelley disclosed any connection with Alley that might lead one to suspect that motives behind Alley’s candidacy were voter suppression. But speculation continues to swirl around Alley’s candidacy, since he did not mount much of a campaign. Was either Republican candidate helped or hurt by limiting the primary to registered Republicans? Or did Alley’s candidacy just prolong the inevitable re-election of incumbent commissioner Steve Kelley?

Superintendent of Schools election 2016

Fast forward to the 2016 race for Nassau County School Superintendent, a partisan position currently being contested by two Republicans (Janet Adkins and Kathy Burns) and a Libertarian candidate named Cheryl Reynolds James. The Adkins-Burns contest, which pits term-limited State Representative Janet Adkins against School Board Member and educator Dr. Kathy Burns, is being closely watched by many who suspect that James’ entry into the race is merely a political maneuver to ensure that the election will be decided in the Republican primary race.

James, who lives in Bryceville on the same street (Sunowa Springs Trail) as one of Adkins’ high-level staffers, has collected three contributions, one from Jacksonville and two from McClenny. Her only expense to date has been payment to a person from Jacksonville who is collecting petition signatures for her.

Speculation is that her candidacy is only to guarantee that the election for School Superintendent, the highest paid elected county office, will be decided in the Republican Primary. That means that teachers and others who normally register as Democrats will be prevented from voting in such an important race.

Dr. John L. Ruis
Dr. John L. Ruis

As those familiar with Nassau County schools know, during current Superintendent John Ruis’ tenure, our school ratings rose to rank among the best in the state. The quality of our schools is a factor in family relocation decisions and economic development decisions when companies consider relocation. Should all the voters not be able to vote in such an important race? As things stand right now, it looks as though unless you are a registered Republican, you will have been blocked from voting in what is already a hotly contested race.

Party principle vs. plain pragmatism

There comes a time when registered voters need to choose between party principle and having a voice in local elections. The reasoning behind instituting the Universal Primary was to eliminate partisan strongholds over elections in counties where one party dominates and fields all the candidates. It seemed to make sense to allow all registered voters to vote in a primary when the absence of opposition from another party meant that the results of the primary election would declare the winner.

two-choicesBut despite the intent of the constitutional amendment, politicians quickly discovered that they could retain party dominance—and restrict voter participation—by perfectly legal means like write-in candidates and third party candidates, who could withdraw from the race after the primary election was held.

But there is a way around the politicians for those voters determined to have a say in local elections normally decided in primaries that have been artificially “closed” through crafty campaign strategies: change party registration, just for the primary election cycle—then change back after the election. Is that intellectually honest? Perhaps not, but it does what the voters in Florida thought they were doing when they amended the state constitution via referendum in 1998—before the state legislators found clever but legal ways to subvert the will of the people.

The Nassau County Supervisor of Elections website is a rich source of information for both voters and candidates. Also, Supervisor Vicki Cannon and her staff are extremely knowledgeable and eager to address any questions or concerns that come their way.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_46446)
7 years ago

Excellent piece. Changing my registration from “unaffiliated” to “GOP”. Hope all who want great schools and good government during a time of major change read and heed if they want to make their votes count.

Stephen Coe
Stephen Coe (@guest_46447)
7 years ago
Reply to  Robert Warner

Even better, Democrats could recruit and support their own candidates instead of complaining about their lack of choices.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_46448)
7 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Coe

Sorry Stephen – the ballot has been gamed too long.

Mary Ann Howat
Mary Ann Howat (@guest_46480)
7 years ago
Reply to  Robert Warner

Robert Bob and I agree with you.

Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_46449)
7 years ago

Robert, I’m with you, Their is only one qualified candidate running for Nassau County Superintendent of Schools. It’s not Ms Adkins or the Libertarian, what’s her name?. The Superintendent of Schools, Should be a Non-Partisan position, as in most communities selected from a pool of qualified candidates, as we in this City select a Business Manager. to run our Community. I’ve never before lived in a County or City that had a Popular vote to select the person who has the responsibility of our Childrens Education. The other part that really bothers me is the political manipulation, of the closed Primary that will have the possibility of eliminating the only True Qualified Candidate which is Doc. Burns. So yes I will, register as a Republican for the Primary, So I may have a say on who Educates our Kids. I’m one of those guys, who was silly enough to serve and fight for my Country, and It really angers me when my vote has been taken away from me, For any reason.

Sharyl Wood
Sharyl Wood (@guest_46450)
7 years ago

It truly makes me sick when politicians play games with people’s voting privileges. I wish that those who engage in this type of action would be exposed. Chances are, this isn’t the only “trick” they have tried in order to sway an election their way or to put pressure on others. However, being determined not to be thwarted in voting for the next Superintendent, I changed my life-long (since 1970) party affiliation. Truly, there are some issues that are more important and serious than sticking with a party affiliation. Make sure all your friends and neighbors know about this. Friends don’t let friends get shut out of voting!

mike spino
mike spino (@guest_46452)
7 years ago
Reply to  Suanne Thamm

So if someone wanted to “adjust” their party affiliation for the purpose of this primary, what would the important dates be to remember?

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_46453)
7 years ago
Reply to  mike spino

Just went to Suanne’s link,, went to the Supervisor of Elections registration application within the link, filled in the change, downloaded and completed the application – and now have in in the mail.

Dianne Febles
Dianne Febles (@guest_46456)
7 years ago

Elected versus appointed superintendent has been a debate that I have heard since I moved to Florida in 1989. I have always leaned towards elected. The five school board members – the body of elected officials who would hire and fire an appointed superintendent are themselves elected by popular vote. There are two qualifications for being a school board member – age and residency. And, unlike presidential elections, there are rarely debates or candidate forums where the electorate can hear directly out of their mouths what they bring to the position and what their plans are for our schools. The voter can occasionally read in local newspapers responses submitted by the candidates to questionnaires but they don’t get to see candidates respond on the spot where they are side by side to their opposition. So, after I have temporarily changed my party affiliation and prior to the August primary election for the superintendent, it is very important to me to hear the candidates state publicly what their views are on key issues that should matter to all voters. How do the candidates differ on student testing, curriculum and standards, recruiting and retaining teachers, privatization of services, exceptional education and inclusion of students with disabilities, charter schools and vouchers, performance pay, vocational and career education, and art, music, and physical education opportunities for students? What experience in education and educational leadership is each candidate bringing to the position? I have read where candidates have “always been passionate about education” but do not see where the record bears that out. Voters should know on what the candidates’ philosophies are based. Are all three candidates products of public schools? Have all three candidates chosen public schools for the education of their children? Where is each candidate’s financial base of support in terms of donations to their campaign?

Voters need to educate themselves about each candidate. Check voting records on the two candidates who have served in elected district and state positions. Demand and attend public debates and forums where candidates can’t hide behind their pens. Candidates speak to transparency which is something voters should demand from the candidates as well.

Do your homework. Read. Listen. And, if things don’t seem to add up, it’s likely not a problem with your math skills.

Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_46458)
7 years ago

Dianne, Your argument is compelling and well thought out. My concerns are twofold. #1 The party in power, which happens to be the Republican party in Nassau County, in my opinion, is gaming the election process. You have two candidates, one a highly qualified professional educator, and another a powerful politician with the backing of the county and state Republican Party behind her. All you need is a warm body to run as a candidate from another party, and you now have a closed primary where 40% of the electorate does not have a vote. #2 By electing a Superintendent of Schools, vs. searching outside the area for the best possible candidate, you are only drawing from a small population. In the current situation, again in my opinion, we have one qualified candidate to manage our schools. I will switch my voter registration to Republican so I have a vote. This is too critical a position to not vote.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
7 years ago

Suanne, once again you have provided a clear and concise explanation of a very complicated issue — THANK YOU! It is sad that the Republican Party machine of Nassau County seems to be conpiring to deny a vote to 40% of the county’s citizens. Shame!

Donald green
Donald green (@guest_46486)
7 years ago

Adkins not only aligned herself with but she also supported John thrasher against the teachers of this state.

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