Favorable listings on Florida ballots easy as your ABCs
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.