New election law gets House race off to even start
By KATHERINE GAZELLA
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 16, 1999
TAMPA -- Under the old rules, Reform Party candidate Tony Hernandez would have needed more than 550 signatures to get his name on the special election ballot for state representative in March.
But a change in the state's election law has made things much easier for Hernandez. Just like his major-party opponents, he will have to collect only 252 signatures.
Hernandez will be among the first candidates in the state to benefit from a new law that says third-party and independent candidates don't have to meet a higher standard than Democrats and Republicans to get on the ballot.
The old system "kept us at a distinct disadvantage," said Hernandez, 46, a Northdale mathematician who works as a systems engineer.
Hernandez is running for the District 61 seat recently vacated by State Rep. Carl Littlefield, who was appointed to the No.2 position in the state Department of Elder Affairs. The district includes parts of eastern Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties.
Under a measure passed by Florida voters in November -- known as Revision 11 -- Hernandez and other candidates will have to gather only as many signatures as major-party candidates. And for the first time, third-party candidates will have the option of paying a qualifying fee instead of gathering signatures.
This week, Attorney General Bob Butterworth said Revision 11 should apply to special elections such as the District 61 race. That allowed the provision to go into effect before the Legislature considers it this spring.
The new system is being hailed as a huge breakthrough for minor-party candidates.
"The rules over the years have been to keep these people off the ballot," said Pam Iorio, Hillsborough's supervisor of elections. The new law "means that you're now going to have a wide-open field."
Hernandez and others had complained that the old rules were unfair. Major party candidates had to obtain only the signatures of 3 percent of the registered voters in their own party. Third-party and independent candidates needed the signatures of 3 percent of all registered voters in the district.
In the past, candidates running as Democrats or Republicans had another option that wasn't open to minor-party candidates: They could qualify for the ballot by paying a fee, calculated as 6 percent of the base salary for the office being sought.
Revision 11 allows third-party candidates the same option. Independents can qualify by paying 4 percent of the base salary because they aren't responsible for a party fee. In the District 61 contest, the fee would be almost $1,600.
Republicans Gilliam Clarke and Carl Littlefield's brother Ken also have entered the race. The general election is March 23.
Hernandez said the easier ballot access already has made a difference to him. In the fall, he ran unsuccessfully against Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman as a write-in candidate because he failed to collect the 3,800 signatures needed to get on the ballot. He thinks he will have no trouble collecting the 252 signatures for this race.
Iorio said Revision 11 coincides with a trend that favors third-party candidates: More and more voters are registering as independents or as supporters of minor parties.
"That, along with the changes in ballot access, could make for some really interesting elections," she said.