TAMPA (FOX 13) - Hundreds of thousands of voters registered with the Independent Party of Florida started receiving letters this week notifying them that their political party has disbanded. The move has left the party founder, Ernie Bach of Largo, furious with what he considers an over-reaction by the Florida Division of Elections.
"It's a bureaucratic boondoggle that is unbelievable," Bach told FOX 13 Tuesday. "According to the Division of Elections, they have obliterated the status of all Independent voters in the state of Florida. We now have zero."
Bach said, since he formed the party in 1993, it had become the largest minor political party in the state.
"[In 2016] there were 262,599 registered Independent Party voters in Florida," he continued.
But in 2014, the state determined the Independent Party didn't meet all of the state guidelines and, following a two-year legal battle, the Division of Elections is forcing the party to shut down.
"It shouldn't have happened. There are a number of things that should have been done by the Board of Elections. They could have eliminated this problem and not caused all this confusion," Bach said.
The problem, according to court filings by the Division of Elections, is that the party used an uncertified public accountant to conduct its annual audit in 2014; Florida requires political parties to use a certified one.
Bach, however, said this was how his party had always conducted its audits and the state previously never had an issue with it.
"They could have slapped us on the wrist. They could have given us a small fine," he said. "That would have eliminated two years of hearings."
Instead, Independent Party voters are now receiving letters from their supervisors of elections, telling them to choose a new political party or register "no party affiliation."
Hillsborough County's supervisor of elections, Craig Latimer, believes a lot of people actually intended to register without an affiliation but accidentally registered as an Independent.
"I think that there is a little bit of confusion that people wanted to be an Independent -- they didn't want to be affiliated with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. They wanted to be Independent," he said. "The bottom line is that if you don't want to be affiliated with a major party or a minor party, then you need to be no party affiliation."
Bach doesn't think people made any mistake.
"Our people, 262,599 strong, took the added incentive to not only check 'other,' but write in the word 'Independent,'" he said, referring to the state's voter registration forms.
The party's founder is now just focused on getting his party accepted again as an official political party in Florida.
"I'm sure we're going to lose 50,000 or 100,000 registered voters, which will still keep us as the third largest registered voter party in the state of Florida," he said.
Latimer explained that voters who were previously registered as Independents will now automatically be registered as "no party affiliation" unless they fill out the form provided by their supervisor of elections.
There are the two major political parties, Republican and Democrat, and now eight minor parties recognized by the state.