Maybe Ron DeSantis doesn’t have to resign to run for president

But legislative leaders sound happy to change state law – just in case.

Gov. DeSantis tosses a hat into the crowd during a “Don’t Tread on Florida Tour" campaign event held at the American Top Team facility on Nov. 4, 2022 in Coconut Creek.

Gov. DeSantis tosses a hat into the crowd during a “Don’t Tread on Florida Tour" campaign event held at the American Top Team facility on Nov. 4, 2022 in Coconut Creek. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

He’s avoided directly answering the question, but let’s say Gov. Ron DeSantis decides to run for the White House in 2024. At least one political action committee, Ready for Ron, wants him to. Billionaire Elon Musk says he’d support him. And Republican voters are increasingly enamored of him. 

But much ado has been made in the press and political circles about whether he has to quit his day job to do so. 

Here’s why: Florida has a resign-to-run law, which bans “an elected or appointed ‘officer’ from qualifying as a candidate for another state, district, county or municipal public office if the terms or any part of the terms overlap with each other if the person did not resign from the office the person presently holds.” That’s how it’s described on some county elections supervisors’ websites. 

Also under the law, “any officer who qualifies for federal public office must resign from the office he or she presently holds if the terms, or any part thereof, run concurrently with each other.” DeSantis is an “officer” under state elections law. And the next presidential term would start in January 2025, overlapping with DeSantis’ second term as governor. 

Now, that’s a potential problem: Should DeSantis for whatever reason not qualify to run, he’d be out as governor. Or so you might think.

Nicholas Warren, an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida staff attorney who specializes in voting rights, says the law “limits people who ‘qualify’ for office – and you don’t ‘qualify’ to run for president in Florida.” (To oversimplify here, qualifying means that one is able to be placed on a ballot.) 

Warren wrote a Twitter thread (in his “personal capacity, not for work,” he said) in response to an October Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau story quoting former Jon Mills, a constitutional law expert who was dean of the University of Florida’s law school in 1999-2003 and was speaker of the Florida House in the late 1980s. 

Mills argues DeSantis has to resign under the state’s law, though he notes, “The question is when? What does qualification mean in terms of running for president? Does it mean you are the final nominee or is it when you qualify for the first primary state?”

Warren disagrees. He explained that to get on the presidential primary ballot in Florida, candidates don’t “qualify” but rather political parties submit lists of people to be on the ballot. Those candidates don’t, for instance, pay a fee or gather signatures as others do. 

There is one notable exception: Write-in candidates, who Warren says do have to qualify to run for president in the general election. “So if DeSantis runs (for president) as a write-in, he’d have to resign effective Jan. 20, 2025,” he said. Not that he would, of course. 

“To belabor the point, ‘qualify’ means something specific in the (Florida) Election Code,” Warren added. “There’s a whole dang statute on what candidate qualifying is and how it happens, and it does NOT mention or apply” to the offices of U.S. president and vice president. 

Elections law guru Mark Herron, who has spent nearly three decades in the field, echoed most of Warren’s points in an interview. Herron also mentioned that lawmakers have changed the resign-to-run law before, taking out candidates for federal office back when then-Gov. (and then-Republican) Charlie Crist was in the running to be John McCain’s pick for vice president in 2008. Alaska’s Sarah Palin got the nod, however, and legislators later restored the language. 

Herron, once the general counsel for the Florida Democratic Party, represented Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam when Messam considered a 2020 run for the White House. 

“I sent a letter to the (Division of Elections in the) Department of State in 2019 basically saying, ‘Is Wayne Messam subject to the resign-to-run law, and if so, when does he have to resign?’ That request was never answered by the division,” Herron said. “In fact, shortly after Messam withdrew as a candidate, I got a letter from the division saying, ‘Your request is moot so we’re not going to answer it.’”

Of course, there’s one way to solve the question, and that’s to get rid of the law, or at least rewrite it. Tallahassee Democrat columnist Bill Cotterell made the point that “Florida has never produced a president, and nobody really thought we might grow one when they passed the resign-to-run law.” 

What it was about was nipping political competition in the bud, he wrote recently: “In the pre-term limits days, legislators were looking out for their own longevity – like, there are some mayors or county commissioners or school superintendents back home who might run against me, so let’s make them give up their own jobs first.” 

“The idea,” he went on, “was that officeholders shouldn’t be able to use one job to boost themselves to a higher office – or to squeeze campaign cash from lobbyists who’d still have to deal with a powerful senator or representative if he or she lost a big race.”

As to tweaking the law, the Legislature’s new Republican leadership sounded more than happy to oblige last month, when they were asked about it in press conferences after the Legislature’s organization session. 

Take House Speaker Paul Renner. Asked about a generic state official, he said, tongue firmly in cheek, “I think that’s a great idea.” He quickly added, “I think we’ll look at that. We’ll look at election law generally.” 

When given the specific example of, say, a governor, Renner added, “This is one area that, going back in history, we’ve been totally inconsistent on. If you think that’s based on anything in your hypothetical, you’d be right.”

Later that day, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo was asked the same question about “the governor.” She at first joked, “If Speaker Renner thinks it’s a good idea, I think it’s a good idea.” 

Then she too quickly added, “If an individual who is a Florida governor is running for president, I think he should be allowed to do it. I really do. That’s an honor and a privilege. So it is a good idea.”

Contact Jim Rosica at jrosica@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @JimRosicaFL

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