TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Still reeling from a string of high-profile razor-thin election losses in Florida, national Democrats are asking a federal judge to discard a longstanding state law that reserves the top slot of next year’s presidential ballot for the party of the state’s governor.
Assuming he survives any primary challenges, top billing would go to President Donald Trump — who, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, is a Republican.
In hearings that began Monday in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Democrats contend that a 1951 law would give Trump unfair advantage in a state with a history of close races, including Trump’s victory in 2016 and last year’s races for governor and U.S. Senate.
“This antiquated, undemocratic rule makes no sense,” said Marc Elias, among the lawyers arguing the case for the Democratic National Committee and its allies. “If this law stands, in 2020 Republican candidates will be listed first on every ballot for every race in the state of Florida. We know that being listed first on the ballot gives a candidate a real advantage.”
In 2016, Trump prevailed over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a 1.2% margin, while DeSantis defeated his Democratic challenger, Andrew Gillum, by a scant four-tenths of a percent in last year’s election. The 2018 U.S. Senate contest between former Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson was decided by about 10,000 votes in a race where almost 8.2 million ballots were cast.
Republicans have countered that the lawsuit reflected sour grapes after a string of Democratic losses. Republicans have also pointed out that it was Democrats who were behind the name-ordering rule when the law was put in place decades ago.
Florida’s 29 electoral votes is the biggest prize among a handful of battleground states that are expected to decide the 2020 presidential election.
So crucial is Florida to each party’s playbook that Democrats and Republicans alike are carving out whatever advantage they can ahead of next year’s elections — or at least trying to neutralize any perceived advantages the other side might have. That includes such seemingly innocuous matters as the order of names on ballots. Democrats favor a more random approach.
The order in which names appear on a ballot “isn’t a huge effect, but it’s not zero either,” said Hans Hassell, an assistant professor of political science at Florida State University.
Already, parties are using the courts to settle some pre-election skirmishes, including disputes over whether ex-felons should have to pay fees before they can vote and whether college campuses can serve as early polling places.