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Putnam County Supervisor of Elections

Florida law requires that candidates who share party identification with the governor get listed first in every race on the ballot.

Judge in ‘donkey vote' case says party in power can’t cling to ballot's top line

This story was updated Nov. 19 with additional information.

Democratic candidates should get a shot at the most prominent spot on the ballot even in reliably red states, a federal judge has ruled in a setback for Republican efforts to hold on to that advantage in bellwether states across the country next year.

The decision came in a challenge to a Florida law mandating that candidates of the same party as the governor get listed first on the ballot.

That suit was among the first filed by Democrats as part of a campaign to challenge proposed 2020 election procedures in red states that have been trending toward purplish blue. Two weeks ago the party's national campaign organizations filed suits against similar ballot-primacy laws in Arizona, Georgia and Texas.

Those cases could be influenced by the precedent set down by federal Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee, who held Florida's law unconstitutional on Friday.

"By systematically awarding a statistically significant advantage to the candidates of the party in power, Florida's ballot order scheme takes a side in partisan elections," he wrote, and the First and 14th amendments to the Constitution do not allow "a state to put its thumb on the scale and award an electoral advantage to the party in power."

The state vowed to appeal. The judge gave Florida's Republican secretary of State, Laurel Lee, two weeks to inform the state's 67 counties that the current law is unconstitutional -- and gave Lee three weeks to come up with a new plan

Evidence at a trial this summer detailed the benefits of being the first candidate listed on the ballot, which political operatives have nicknamed the "primacy effect," the "windfall vote" and the "donkey vote." After looking at elections in the past four decades, one expert testified that first-listed candidates in Florida have gained an average advantage of 5 percentage points — more than enough to be dispositive in a place where the margin in statewide contests recently has routinely been 1 point or less.

"Although no single raindrop bursts a dam, and a single small transaction rarely is the sole cause of a bankruptcy, the dam still fails and the debtor becomes insolvent," Walker wrote. "Similarly, candidate name order effects are not the only reason elections are won and lost, but they do contribute substantially to candidates' successes or failures at the polls."

Republicans have held the governorship since 1999, meaning they've had the top ballot line for every race each of the past 10 election cycles.

Florida has voted for the presidential winner six straight times, and its 29 electoral votes will once again be the third biggest prize next November — after reliably Democratic California and potentially up-for-grabs Texas, which has had a GOP governor for two straight decades. Democrats are sounding bullish about contesting the 38 electoral votes in that state, the 16 in Georgia and the 11 in Arizona — plus a total of four Senate seats in the states with the other "donkey vote" suits.

While Walker's ruling is on appeal, there's no clarity about when or how the top line in Florida will be assigned in 2020.

The case would go next to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also hears appeals from Georgia. Texas and Arizona are in different appeals circuits.

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.

The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.

With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.

This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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