WASHINGTON – Florida law doesn't permit polling place signs saying a vote for former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Republican who sent suggestive messages to congressional pages, will go to a replacement candidate, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Circuit Judge Janet Ferris granted a temporary injunction to stop election officials from using signs to tell voters that while Foley's name remains on the ballot, state Rep. Joe Negron will get his votes in a race against Democrat Tim Foley.
"It is a victory for the Florida Democratic Party obviously, but more importantly it is a victory for Democrats, Republicans, independents and other parties that in the fact we have now gotten a clarification of what the law is," said state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman, who filed the lawsuit.
Negron spokesman Todd Harris said the Stuart lawmaker would appeal. Secretary of State Sue Cobb also will appeal, said spokeswoman Jenny Nash.
Ferris cited a 2005 law that repealed a provision which had called for putting replacement candidates' names on the ballot up to 21 days before a general election. The new law instead prohibits name changes after primary election results are finalized.
Ferris wrote that lawmakers had a chance in that law to require explanatory signs, as the Kentucky Legislature did in a similar statute, but declined to do so.
"The court is not at liberty to question the Legislature's decision, or its judgment, in enacting the statute, and there can be little doubt that it understood the confusion likely to result," she wrote.
The law was changed a year after signs had been used as an alternative to reprinting or rubber-stamping ballots to indicate that votes for a Democratic congressional candidate, who withdrew due to illness, would go to a replacement in another South Florida congressional district.
Ron Labasky, a lawyer for the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said his clients, supervisors in six of the eight counties in the 16th Congressional District, had not yet decided whether they also would appeal. He doubted they would.
"We were just looking for some clarification and if nothing else we got some," Labasky said.
In an attempt to remain neutral the proposed signs would say Democrat Tim Mahoney and unaffiliated candidate Emmie Ross each also would get the votes cast for them. Democratic Party lawyer Mark Herron, though, argued the signs still would be political.
"That type of notice favors the Republican candidate," Mark Herron said at a hearing earlier Wednesday. "There's no need to state that a vote for Mahoney is a vote for Mahoney."
Herron said the signs amount to campaign materials, which state law prohibits from being distributed or displayed within 100 feet of any polling place.
Foley resigned on Sept. 29, too late to change the ballots under the new law. His resignation followed the disclosure of e-mails and instant messages he had sent to teenage pages.
Labasky argued the signs would be legal under other laws giving election officials authority to educate and assist voters. Lawyers for Negron and Cobb, an appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, agreed.
Ferris, though, said those laws are limited to procedural matters such as how to work voting machines.
"To interpret the election statutes relevant here as permitting the proposed intrusion into the polling place, no matter how well-intentioned that proposal may be, is an extrapolation far beyond the Legislature's words," she wrote.
The sign dispute itself has become an issue in the race to succeed Foley.
"The Democrats have gone to court to try to confuse the voters," Negron said on a campaign visit to Punta Gorda with Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman. "Mahoney knows the only way he's going to win is if he runs against Foley. If he runs against me, he's going to lose."
Mahoney said Tuesday in Port Charlotte that it was good that the courts were involved.
"We need to have clear direction from them so that we have a fair election," he said.
Mahoney's campaign also has complained about federal tax dollars being used to spread the word to overseas voters that Negron will get Foley's votes.
The Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program issued a news release explaining the situation. It then was e-mailed by the State Department to many overseas voters including troops stationed in Iraq.
Negron issued his own news release that quoted an Iraq veteran, Marine Cpl. David Snyder, as saying Mahoney "should be ashamed of his disgraceful efforts to keep our fighting men and women overseas in the dark."
A Mahoney spokeswoman did not immediately comment, saying the campaign would issue a statement later Wednesday.