The past four years have not been kind to the Independent Party of Florida.
Its bid for access to the 2020 ballot has hit a wall in the federal courts.
The Independents now claim only 105,600 members, and money’s a problem too — as of April, the party had $2,136 in the bank.
But the party isn’t ready to give up just yet, and may have found one way out of its morass, according to chairman Ernest Bach. He’s in Pinellas County, where he’d spent decades as a Republican before going Independent in 1992.
Bach says party leaders have been in talks with Brock Pierce, the child actor turned tech investor and philanthropist who’s running for president, about an endorsement in Florida.
Brittany Kaiser, Pierce’s campaign manager confirmed the talks in a telephone interview. But a deal depends on the outcome of litigation testing whether the party can place his name on the ballot.
“If we were able to work with them to be on the ballot then we would obviously dedicate our time to campaigning in the state of Florida. We really care about specifically a lot of the issues that are important to Floridians,” Kaiser said.
“We hope that as we build up our national presence that we will be able to work with them for future election cycles,” she said.
The benefits of an endorsement are obvious.
“If this guy wants to throw a half-million or a million dollars into the Independent Party of Florida, we can organize and be a voice, starting in 2022, in state elections,” Bach said.
But the prospect alarms Bach, with polls showing Joe Biden leading in the biggest swing state — although lately polls show the margin is slim — and Trump enjoying distinct organizational advantages.
Those include GOP control of the Legislature and governor’s office, which oversees Florida’s electoral apparatus.
“I don’t want to see another 1 percent election difference between two presidential candidates this year in Florida,” Bach said.
“If we were to support Brock as president and put a few hundred thousand votes behind him, our executive committee feels that that would hurt Uncle Joe worse than Trump. And we don’t want to give Florida to Trump this year.”
The party has struggled before
At one time, Bach said, the Independent Party claimed 262,599 registered voters, “which made us a strong third registered party of voters in Florida, behind only the Rs and the Ds.”
But not anymore.
Finances are so limited the party couldn’t even afford an IT specialist willing to build and monitor a campaign website and social media accounts — recent quotes ranged from $5,000 to $10,000.
And then there’s the court case over ballot access.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit issued an opinion on Aug. 8 upholding the state’s rules for qualifying the presidential ballot, rejecting the Independent Party’s claim that the regulations are unconstitutional.
There are avenues for appeal — to the full 11th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court — but the process is unlikely to conclude in time to do the party any good this year.
“With this ruling, that’s an uphill battle. It’s going to be tough,” said Dan Treuden of The Bernhoft Law Firm in Austin, Texas, who represents both the Independent Party and the Party of Socialism and Liberation, which collaborated on the appeal.
Representatives of the Socialist party didn’t respond to requests for comments left through Trueden and the contact number in its Florida Division of Elections records.
The two rank among seven state-recognized “minor political parties” that each comprise less than 5 percent of registered voters — the Constitution Party, the Ecology Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Reform Party are the others.
The party contains refugees from both the Democratic and Republican parties but mostly hews to the “center left,” as Bach puts it.
“Take care of the people. That’s our basic, simple concept. And that does tend to lean more toward the liberal side,” he said.
That means antipathy to corporate tax cuts and support for abortion rights, the Affordable Care Act, and LGBT rights.
State law provides two paths to the ballot in presidential elections: affiliation with some national party that nominates candidates for president and vice president — the Libertarians, the Greens, and the Constitution Party would qualify, according to Federal Election Commission records — or by producing petition signatures equal to 1 percent of the state’s registered voters.
At last count, 13.8 million Floridians had registered to vote, so a party would need about 138,000 petition signatures.
That’s a higher petition threshold than many other states — according to Treuden, whose firm litigates elections disputes nationally, his old home state of Wisconsin requires only 2,000.
As for affiliating with a national party, it’s rather anathema to the Independents, who, notwithstanding sister parties in other states, plow individual furrows.
“They intend to be independent of other parties. It’s their decision not to associate with a national party and that way they can choose who their candidate would be and they’re not beholden to interests outside the state of Florida,” Treuden said.
Don’t confuse Florida Independents with the right-wing American Independent Party.
And don’t confuse them with “no party affiliation,” or NPA, voters. Bach notes that the voter registration form requires people to write in a minor party name and gives them the option of picking NPA.
“Our voters wrote in the name Independent. They didn’t check NPA.”
‘We’re screwed for two election cycles’
In their lawsuit, originally filed in the U.S. District Court for Florida’s Northern District, the Independents and Socialists alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.
The trial judge rejected their request for a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the restrictions, and the 11th Circuit panel refuse to intercede.
The ruling, written by Judge William Pryor, notes that the petition requirement is more lenient than Florida’s old rules, which gave parties 188 days to collect petitions reflecting 3 percent of the electorate; now parties have four years to collect fewer signatures.
“Together, the affiliation and petition methods serve the important state interest of limiting ballot access to presidential candidates that have a modicum of support somewhere — either nationally or in Florida,” Pryor wrote.
“Although the extent to which states must accommodate the national interest in presidential elections is unclear … they are certainly permitted to account for this interest by tailoring ballot-access restrictions for candidates with a modicum of national support.
“And the burden this disparate treatment imposes on minor parties that do not affiliate with a national party is not severe,” he added.
What that means, according to Bach, is this: “We’re screwed for two election cycles.”
He referred to 2020, of course, but also to 2016, when the state decertified the party because it hadn’t used a certified public accountant to review its books, according to news reports at the time. The party claimed it couldn’t afford a CPA so it used a bookkeeper instead.
The party had hoped to name Utah Republican Evan McMullin as its candidate but when decertification quashed that plan endorsed Hillary Clinton instead.
The idea had been to spoil Donald Trump’s campaign, Bach said in a telephone interview with the Florida Phoenix.
“We saw the handwriting on the wall with a Trump potential presidency and Evan, having basic Republican philosophy — he’s pro-life, he’s anti-gun regulation, so at heart he’s a Republican. But if we could get him on the ballot he would drag votes away from Trump.”