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One Penny Short – Candidate Knocked Out of State House Race

A Polk County House candidate who failed to qualify to run for a House seat because his filing check was a penny short said Monday he likely won’t sue for a place on the ballot, and doesn’t think he’d succeed if he tried.

Neil Combee, a longtime Polk County commissioner who had intended to challenge incumbent Republican Rep. Kelli Stargel in the GOP primary for House District 64, was disqualified after a campaign worker turned in a check to state elections officials Friday for $1781.81. The qualifying fee is $1,781.82.

Combee had considered over the weekend mounting a legal challenge, but said Monday that for a variety of reasons he was leaning against going to court.

“I don’t think I’d get very far with that,” Combee told the News Service. “It sounds like a difficult process, and I don’t have the desire or the money to pursue it.”
Combee said he’s philosophically a bit uncomfortable with running to a judge, saying he’s never sued anybody as an individual – though he’s signed off on lawsuits by the county as a member of the commission – and doesn’t really want to start suing people now.

Another consideration, Combee said: he fears he’d be up against the Republican establishment, which would likely back Stargel, R-Lakeland. The party didn’t want a primary, he said.

Combee’s still a bit miffed at how the mistake was handled, though. He says he understands the Division of Elections position – which is that the law is the law – but didn’t understand why nobody at the elections office could warn him that he was in danger of not qualifying. He said he called four times on Friday to check on his qualifying paperwork and was told that officials didn’t have time to speak with him on the busy final day of qualifying. And nobody notified him.

“If you file on Friday, they’re not obligated to call you,” Combee said. “But by the same token, they’re not prohibited from calling you either….It doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that someone would get on the phone with a candidate.”

The biggest problem appears to be that Combee waited until Friday, the last day of qualifying, to file. Lots of candidates do that – waiting as long as possible, hoping to see who else is in.

Nobody remembers anyone being disqualified for being a penny short, but some miscue prevents people from qualifying every year on the final day, said Division of Elections spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis.

“That’s why we have two weeks before, to give people plenty of time,” Davis said. “It’s like ordering Christmas presents the day before Christmas and being mad when they don’t get there on time.”

Davis said elections officials didn’t “decide” not allow Combee to qualify – he simply didn’t because he didn’t have the right fee. Some other candidates for minor offices around the state failed to qualify because they didn’t have the proper signatures, or in one case, because a soil and water conservation board candidate didn’t realize it was time to run for re-election.

Extreme circumstances in some years have led officials to waive qualifying rules – but it appears to require something that affects several candidates.

In 2002, Gov. Jeb Bush extended the noon Friday deadline for qualifying to 5 p.m. Friday because a Fed Ex plane that had been carrying several candidates’ paperwork crashed that morning at Tallahassee Regional Airport. The extra five hours gave several candidates time to deliver the paperwork in person – although some had to drive instead of fly because the airport was closed for several hours that morning.

That same year, there had also been a mix-up on the qualifying fee because a wrong amount had been published, but candidates were notified early enough that they could pay the additional amount by the end of the qualifying period.

Davis said officials simply followed the law in rejecting Combee, and that there wasn’t any appeal process outside of going to court.

“We don’t have the authority to go beyond the letter of the law,” she said.

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