Judge orders Florida to stop rigging the ballot to help Republicans win elections

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A federal judge ruled this week that the state must stop listing Republicans first on its ballots.

On Friday, a federal judge ordered the state of Florida to stop consistently listing Republicans first on election ballots, a tactic that gives Republican candidates for all offices an electoral advantage.

In the ruling, the Judge Mark Walker found specifically that listing Republicans first on the ballot gives GOP candidates up to a 5% advantage on Election Day.

"Florida may not continue to order candidates' names on its ballots in a way that systematically awards the statistically significant advantage ... on the basis of their partisan affiliation," Walker wrote in his decision.

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Under Florida law, whichever political party won the most recent race for governor had its candidates listed first on all ballots in subsequent years. Expert testimony, described in Walker's ruling, showed that being listed first gave those candidates up to a 5% advantage, a phenomenon known as the "primacy effect."

In Florida, since Republicans won the last governor's race, that meant all Republicans running for local, state, or federal office were listed first on the ballot. According to the ruling, Republican organizations in the state initially claimed that Republican candidates would be "most directly harmed" by taking away their prime position on the ballot, but later tried to take back that claim.

In 2018, when the ballot order rule was in effect, Democrat Andrew Gillum lost his bid for governor to Republican Ron DeSantis by 0.4% of the vote. That same year, Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson lost to Rick Scott by 0.2% of the vote.

The crux of the lawsuit centered on that ballot order issue.

In his ruling this week, Walker called arguments in favor of the ballot order rule "hogwash," lambasting the defense's expert witness who stood by the current system, calling their cross-examination "an artful tour de force that should be studied by law students as a textbook demolition of an expert witness."

Walker's ruling will force Florida to come up with a nonpartisan way to list candidates on the ballot. Walker offered several options, including the possibility of rotating which party is listed first on a county-by-county or precinct-by-precinct basis. Florida will be forced to implement this change before the 2020 election.

The lawsuit was brought by a group of Democratic organizations including the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Democratic Governors Association (DGA), and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). (The author of this article is related to a DNC staff member involved in the case.)

Marc Elias, a prominent voting rights attorney who frequently works with Democrats, described the ruling as "major court victory ahead of 2020."

On Nov. 1, Democratic groups filed ballot order lawsuits in Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. While the details of each states' laws differ, each state lists Republicans first on their ballot.

Republicans have implemented several different efforts to gain advantages at the ballot box in recent years. A lawsuit in Georgia is taking aim at a GOP-passed law that could disenfranchise early voters. North Carolina faces a lawsuit over allegations the state is trying to strip away the ability of people to cast early votes. And Michigan is being sued over a signature match law that could disenfranchise thousands of voters.

"Voting is at the heart of representative systems of government," Walker said in his ruling, "and dispensing with unconstitutional obstacles to free and fair elections is unquestionably in the public interest."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.