The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that presidential candidate Ralph Nader's name will appear on statewide ballots in November, after a chaotic week of rulings and reversals by lower courts and election officials that evoked memories of the aftermath of the 2000 election.
In a 6 to 1 decision that came one day before county election supervisors were required by state law to mail absentee ballots to 25,000 Floridians living abroad, the court said it was "guided by the overriding constitutional principle in favor of ballot access."
"The Democrats should stop trying to win this election in court and start competing for votes on the issues," said Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese, who said Nader will campaign in nine Florida cities later this month.
The decision came in response to a lawsuit brought by the state Democratic Party and like-minded groups arguing that the Reform Party USA, which nominated Nader for president and has qualified for a ballot line in Florida and seven other states, is not a bona fide national party.
Scott Maddox, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, said he is disappointed with the decision but will not appeal.
Democrats are concerned that Nader will siphon votes away from their nominee, John F. Kerry, in a closely contested state with 27 electoral votes at stake. A recent St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll had President Bush at 48 percent, Kerry at 46 percent and Nader at 2 percent in the state, with the rest undecided.
"If those numbers stay close, Nader's impact on the race could be significant again," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
Nader was initially approved for the Florida ballot by GOP Secretary of State Glenda Hood, but last week a trial judge issued an injunction disqualifying him. Hood appealed, triggering an automatic stay of the injunction, and told county election officials to prepare ballots including Nader's name before the high court intervened on Wednesday and stopped ballots from being sent out until it had ruled.
"It's been very trying, to say the very least," said Susan Gill, the Citrus County supervisor of elections. Gill said her office had prepared two sets of ballots to be sent from the county to 203 overseas voters, one group with Nader's name on them and one without it.
Democrats who complain that Republicans are helping Nader get on the ballot in a host of states have likened Hood, who was appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), the president's brother, to Katherine Harris, who was the secretary of state during the 2000 election and recount and is now a Republican member of Congress.
"Jeb Bush and Glenda Hood did everything in their power to put Ralph Nader on the ballot and revealed him to be a tool of the Republicans," Maddox said.
Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for Hood, denied politics played a role. "Our only goal is to have the most accurate ballot available. We don't have a dog in the fight," she said.
Oral arguments yesterday focused on a 1999 Florida law that requires presidential candidates who do not represent one of the major political parties to either collect more than 90,000 signatures to run as an independent or be nominated by a national party at a convention.
In its decision, the court observed that the state legislature had not defined specifically what it meant by national party or national convention. Along with Nader, five other minor-party candidates will appear on the Florida ballot, though none of the other inclusions was contested.
The Reform Party, which has become increasingly disorganized and financially strapped since its founding in the mid-1990s by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, nominated Nader in a May telephone conference call and reaffirmed the selection at a meeting last month in Irving, Tex.
The reappearance of lawyers who played prominent roles in the flurry of legal action that followed the 2000 election in Florida -- in which Nader received more than 97,000 votes while George W. Bush beat Al Gore by 537 votes -- fueled the perception that the dispute is proxy battle in the tight race between Kerry and Bush.
Kenneth Sukhia, who represented Bush in 2000 and Nader yesterday, told the court: "The rights at stake here -- that is the right of assembly, free expression and to vote -- are not just fundamental rights, they are the most precious of all fundamental rights."
Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe, who represented Gore four years ago and the groups opposing Nader yesterday, argued that the Reform Party, which is nominating just a handful of candidates in elections this year, lacks the reach of a national party.
Nader, who has used the Democratic Party's campaign against him to try to motivate supporters and donors, has so far met the qualifying standard to get on the ballot in 33 states plus the District, though he faces further litigation in as many as 19 states, Zeese said.
After the Florida decision was announced yesterday, a Colorado judge put Nader on the ballot in that state, but a judge in New Mexico ruled that Nader should not appear on the ballot there.
In Iowa yesterday, Nader called on Democrats to halt their efforts to keep him off the ballot. "Get off our backs and let us provide more voice and more choice to the people," he said, according to the Associated Press.