Judge hears arguments in lawsuit over state attorney's election

Voters challenge write-in candidate who forced primary closed to Democrats

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Arguments were heard Tuesday in a lawsuit over who can vote in the election for state attorney in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties. 

The lawsuit filed on behalf of voters claims a candidate registered as a write-in in the November election for state attorney for the 4th Judicial Circuit is "a sham" and is only running to force the August 30 primary to be limited to Republican voters. That leaves hundreds of thousands of Democratic and independent voters unable to vote. 

Republican State Attorney Angela Corey is running for re-election. She is facing Republican primary opposition from two former employees, Wesley White and Melissa Nelson.

Local attorney Kenny Leigh filed to run as a write-in candidate, closing that primary to only registered Republicans, which some say gives Corey, the incumbent, an advantage.

Corey's campaign manager admits to helping Leigh -- an outspoken supporter and donor to Corey's campaign -- file papers with state election officials.

Leigh, an attorney himself, said it was perfectly legal and told the court the lawsuit has no merit.

At Tuesday's hearing, Judge James Daniel asked, "Do all registered voters have the opportunity to vote?"

Leigh answered by defending the law, saying that his motive shouldn't matter.

After a 90-minute hearing, Daniel said he needs to process the arguments, but knowing that the outcome will affect the upcoming election, he said he would make a ruling on the motion quickly.

Many Democrats argue this is dirty politics.

"On the write-in form, there is no place for the party, however, in this case, the write-in is a Republican, too," said state Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville. "That is technically not opposition for November."

Corey denied her campaign did anything illegal, or even inappropriate. She said if a non-Republican wants to vote in August, all he or she has to do is change parties.

"My sister, who is one of my favorite Democrats, even though we fight like cats and dogs sometimes over political issues, she's not being left out. It took her five minutes to go switch to the party to vote in a race she feels very compelled to vote in," Corey said.

Democrats don't think that's the solution. Neil Henrichsen, with the Duval County Democratic Party, gave a statement. It reads in part:

"Despite our serious efforts to recruit a Democratic candidate, the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters by a bogus write-in candidate is a serious issue for all voters regardless of political party."

"That situation is silly," former state Sen. Tony Hill said. "Keep us from participating (in) what our core beliefs are. We are here today to say, 'Let our people vote.'"

Some voters in the three counties in the circuit have changed their affiliation to Republican within the past two weeks. Duval County has not replied to a News4Jax inquiry, but in Clay and Nassau counties, nearly 200 voters have re-registered as Republicans.

While some have questioned the ethics surrounding Leigh's status as a write-in candidate, law professor Rod Sullivan says it's still within the law. He's seen similar situations in the past.

"As long as you abide by the rules, it's very difficult for a court to say that a candidate is a sham candidate or that an election process set up by statutes should be set aside because one side doesn't like the way the other side has maneuvered within the law, " says Sullivan.


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