A Florida law that bars candidates from switching parties in the year before an election could face a court challenge on the grounds that it amounts to a lifelong ban.
Fred O'Neal, founder of the Florida TEA Party, cited Section 99.021(1)(b) of the law, which says a candidate must attest that he "has not been a registered member of any other political party for 365 days before the beginning of qualifying preceding the general election for which the person seeks to qualify."
"As a result, the only potential candidates the Tea Party or any other new party can hope to qualify are 18- and 19-year-olds or people who have been lifelong NPA's [No Party Affiliation]," said O'Neal.
The Orlando attorney argues that the law's failure to specify "during the 365 days" prior to the election can be construed to mean any 365-day period -- thus thwarting party-jumping candidates altogether.
O'Neal said he believes the law's sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, intended to use the phrase "during the 365 days" before the beginning of qualification.
"But he didn't," O'Neal said. "And under Florida law, legislative intent and the meaning of a statute is determined solely by the 'plain language' of the statute, unless there is some ambiguity."
Baxley said the law is intended to "keep candidates from manipulating the process -- from building political capital in one place and then switching in a new direction."
"The intent was, 'You don't switch parties 365 days before an election,'" he said.
Baxley said he has not talked to attorneys to determine if a change in the law's wording "has merit."
Nancy Argenziano challenged the disaffiliation law in an effort to switch from the Independent Party to the Democratic Party as she sought to run for Florida's 2nd Congressional District seat.
But her lawsuit was tossed by the courts, and she has since decided to run for a state House seat in Citrus County, as an Independent Party candidate.
Argenziano, a former Public Service Commission member who previously served as a Republican state legislator, agrees with O'Neal that the law needs another look.
"If you read the language, it shows how messed up this really is," she said.
Pending another legal challenge, O'Neal believes the law "has effectively cemented people into their existing political parties forever."
"As a practical matter, we can effectively never run a candidate for office," he said of the Tea Party.
"Moreover, people like me -- who have at some point in their lives been both a registered Republican and a registered Democrat for more than 365 days each -- can never run for office in Florida as a candidate of any political party," O'Neal argues.