Fa­vor­able list­ings on Florida bal­lots easy as your ABCs

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - Fred Grimm Fred Grimm (@grim­m_fred or [email protected]), a long­time res­i­dent of Fort Laud­erdale, has worked as a re­porter or colum­nist in South Florida since 1976.

Vot­ers be­ware. Aaron Aard­vark cometh.

The state’s Fourth Dis­trict Court of Ap­peal cleared the way for can­di­dates such as Aaron on fu­ture Florida bal­lots. On Aug. 24, a three­judge panel de­cided there was noth­ing un­to­ward about a Broward ju­di­cial can­di­date’s midlife de­ci­sion to al­ter his name in a way that just hap­pened to im­prove his place on Tues­day’s bal­lot.

A Hol­ly­wood lawyer for­merly known as Jason Allen Ros­ner, who oth­er­wise would have been listed last among four can­di­dates hop­ing to re­place re­tir­ing Cir­cuit Court Judge Ilona Holmes, added an op­por­tune hy­phen. Oh, serendip­ity. With his mid­dle name yoked to his sur­name, Jason Allen-Ros­ner was el­e­vated to the top of the al­pha­bet­i­cal bal­lot list­ing.

One of the Ros­ner’s op­po­nents, Melissa Donoho, filed suit. (By way of dis­clo­sure, Melissa is a friend of mine.) She ar­gued, “A ju­di­cial elec­tion bal­lot is not a scram­ble to cre­ate a name to be listed first like a Yel­low Pages list­ing — ‘aa aard­vark lock­smith.’ Such chi­canery or flim­flam must not be per­mit­ted, par­tic­u­larly in a ju­di­cial race where can­di­dates must avoid even an ap­pear­ance of im­pro­pri­ety.”

Au con­traire. First a Broward cir­cuit judge, then the ap­peal court, re­fused to in­ter­vene, no mat­ter that Allen-Ros­ner had prac­ticed law and run for judge in three pre­vi­ous elec­tions (un­suc­cess­fully) as plain old Ros­ner. The three­judge panel de­cided that al­though the can­di­date for­merly known as Ros­ner (who has been em­ploy­ing the hy­phen, off and on, since May

2017) might well have rechris­tened him­self Allen-Ros­ner to gain a “com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage in the elec­tion,” there was no ev­i­dence that this was “an at­tempt to de­ceive or con­fuse vot­ers.”

Donoho’s ar­gu­ment, the ap­peal panel wrote, was “premised on the spec­u­la­tive be­lief that the first name listed on the bal­lot re­ceives an ad­van­tage.”

It’s hardly spec­u­la­tion. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists have been study­ing the so-called “bal­lot or­der ef­fect” for decades. They’ve found that top billing can add from 2 per­cent to 10 per­cent to a can­di­date’s vote to­tal. The phe­nom­e­non be­comes most pro­found down bal­lot, where nearly anony­mous can­di­dates clamor for votes in an elec­toral nether­world, such as ju­di­cial races, where most vot­ers haven’t a clue.

It’s democ­racy by hap­pen­stance. And a hell of a way to pick a judge. (As op­posed to, say, as­sign­ing the task to a non-par­ti­san com­mis­sion.) But Florida law dic­tates that bal­lots in non-par­ti­san elec­tions, such as ju­di­cial and school board races, list the can­di­dates in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der. (Same rule ap­plies to pri­mary can­di­dates in par­ti­san elec­tions.)

So the Ab­botts and Adams of the world en­joy an ut­terly ar­bi­trary elec­toral ad­van­tage. In Florida, any­way. In 1975, the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court de­cided that both al­pha­bet­i­cal list­ings and the prac­tice of plac­ing in­cum­bents first were un­con­sti­tu­tional. The court cited ev­i­dence that top billing cre­ated a 5 per­cent ad­van­tage.

Nowa­days, Cal­i­for­nia draws lots to de­ter­mine bal­lot place­ment, though that still awards a lucky win­ner a top-of-the-bal­lot bump. At least the Cal­i­for­nia method keeps the Aard­varks at bay.

New York City switches the or­der of can­di­dates from precinct to precinct. Ohio, Iowa and Mon­tana also re­quire var­i­ous forms of name ro­ta­tions. But Florida bal­lots are stuck with the ABCs. Ex­cept in par­ti­san races, where can­di­dates from the party of who­ever hap­pens to be gover­nor en­joy top list­ing. (Democrats, of course, are su­ing.)

Jason Whats-His-Name was hardly the first Florida can­di­date try­ing to wan­gle an ad­van­tage by al­ter­ing a sur­name. South Florida, in par­tic­u­lar, has seen can­di­dates al­ter­ing sur­names or re­viv­ing maiden names to sound Jewish or His­panic, de­pend­ing on the elec­torate’s dom­i­nate eth­nic­ity.

Or they just blatantly try to de­ceive vot­ers. The courts in­ter­vened in a 2006 Mi­ami-Dade bal­lot case af­ter an up­start chal­lenger named Juan E. Planas be­came “J.P. Planas” when he chal­lenged J.C. Planas, a well-known in­cum­bent state rep­re­sen­ta­tive. A judge ruled Juan E.’s sud­den trans­for­ma­tion to J.P. was a “strat­a­gem clearly in­tended to de­ceive and con­fuse vot­ers.”

My all-time fa­vorite bal­lot bam­boo­zler was John G. Plum­mer, a one-time school bus driver who, back in 1980, ran for state rep in Mi­ami where Plum­mer was a hal­lowed name in lo­cal pol­i­tics. J.L. Plum­mer was a city com­mis­sioner and his brother Larry Plum­mer was a state rep.

The Plum­mer brothers were white. John was black, which might have tipped off vot­ers that he was not of the same clan. Ex­cept John ran a stealth cam­paign: no pho­tos, no in­ter­views, no pub­lic ap­pear­ances.

John's win­ning cam­paign slo­gan: “The fam­ily name Plum­mer speaks for it­self.” The case of mis­taken iden­tity gar­nered 38,147 votes against his op­po­nent's 33,995. The gim­mick, how­ever, was only good for one two-year term. The pre­tender was voted out of of­fice in 1982.

The Jason Allen-Ros­ner ploy racked up

48,000 votes in the cir­cuit court elec­tion. Not enough to win, but 17,000 more than he man­aged in his 2010 run for county court.

And Jason A. paved the way for Aaron Aard­vark.

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