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Let the races begin II

Qualifying has closed for Florida elections, and, in far too many races, so have the voters' options. Improved election machinery doesn't mean much when a candidate, unopposed, is elected without a vote.

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's presidential debacle produced eternal truth in a hot-selling T-shirt that said, "It's not your vote that counts, it's how your vote is counted."

For 2002, here is a sequel: "There's no vote that counts if you have no vote to be counted."

When it comes to electing our Legislature this fall, nearly half of us will have no vote to be counted.

Anybody who claims Florida is a democracy is, to put it kindly, being disingenuous.

At what was supposed to be the qualifying deadline Friday -- see Florida Screws Up Again, on any late night talk show -- only 21 of the 40 Senate seats were contested. Nineteen senators, including two prospective freshmen coming over from the House, were elected without any of their constituents having anything to say about it. Only one of them -- Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg -- will even appear on the ballot. As she has only a write-in opponent, she too is, for all practical purposes, already re-elected.

The situation in the House is only superficially better. Fourteen incumbents drew no opponents other than some scattered write-ins who will never be heard of again. Another 27 Republicans and 13 Democrats are running unopposed except for Libertarians and some write-ins. We can admire the Libertarians' chutzpah, but political reality tells us that none of them will pose a serious threat. Ergo, nearly half the House -- 54 seats out of 120 -- has been won, as they would say in poker, for openers.

But it gets even worse than that. Among the remaining House districts, the major action in 18 will be only in Republican or Democratic primaries whose outcomes will be tantamount to election. Here again, there are Libertarians and write-ins muddying the water. The only practical effect of their presence will be to keep the primaries closed to all but voters of those major parties, depriving even more people of a chance to vote.

The Florida Constitution requires primaries to be wide-open only when the winner "will have no opposition in the general election." Libertarians and other candidates who will appear on the ballot unarguably constitute opposition. It is a stretch, however, to consider write-ins as such. None has ever won an office in Florida. Yet that is how the Division of Elections has interpreted it, and no one has cared to take the issue to court. On that account, five more Senate races will end in the primaries. Only one Senate primary will be open. As for the House, 16 of 17 primaries will be closed, but mainly because of Libertarian candidacies on the November ballot.

If you're keeping count, you will have noticed that substantially more than half your Legislature is being chosen with large parts of their constituencies -- and in many cases all -- having nothing to say about it.

By my rough count, some 4.5-million registered voters are being shut out of the Senate. Uncontested House races will disenfranchise 1.5-million. Another 3-million will have only Libertarians or write-ins through whom to vent their frustration that nobody filed but a shoo-in Republican or Democrat. The actual figures are probably higher, as the available registration figures for current districts are two years old.

In comparison, even the Congressional races look more competitive. Nineteen of the 25 seats are contested, though reality suggests that few of them will be close. But at least you'll be able to say you could have voted.

The most startling aspect to the dearth of voter choice for state House or state Senate is that this is a redistricting year. Conventional wisdom says that should mean more competition than usual, but there may turn out to be even less when the votes are counted. Many of what appear to be two-party races will turn out as landslides because of the way the districts were rigged to enlarge the Republican majorities. That necessarily entailed creating districts that were super-safe for their Democratic incumbents. Still, a number of people are bucking the odds. But unless their opponents die or suffer some other major misfortune, the upstarts will not win.

How did it look 10 years ago, when the Democrats were still in power and more or less in charge of the decennial redistricting?

Better.

Only seven of the 40 Senate seats went entirely uncontested and only seven other races ended in the primaries. In the House, only 26 seats were uncontested and only 21 races were concluded in the primaries. If we thought that was bad enough, we had yet to see how bad it would get.

Al Cardenas, the Republican state chairman, had a press conference Friday. He wouldn't concede a single thing wrong.

"If you look at voter registration, it's clearly more important than voting performance," he said.

As that seemed to miss the point, I asked him what's the use of registering if there's no one to vote for. I thought he would say, "The governor's race, of course," but that would have conceded something amiss with the Legislature.

"Everybody who wanted to run is running," he said.

Bob Poe, the Democratic state chairman, said he thinks term limits are to blame.

"A lot of people told me they were simply going to wait until it was an open seat," he said.

Cardenas disagrees, but Poe seems to be right. It's tough business to take on an incumbent in either party. Campaigns are expensive.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, wasn't counting just on a good district and name recognition to re-elect him. He had already raised $103,000 in contributions and had spent $80,000 doing what one has to do to start the race ahead. Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, had raised $104,000 with nearly $90,000 of it in reserve. The Democrat who filed at the last moment against him Friday is to be respected for her courage but not for her chances.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, drew a bye also. If any senator deserved it, he did. Lee is widely admired -- except, perhaps, by the telecommunications lobbies -- for standing on principles. It did not hurt, however, that he had raised $218,000 in response to rumors that certain lobbies with grudges would target him.

With Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, also unopposed -- he had much less money but a very safe district -- it means that only three of the six Senate seats based in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties will see any competition. Two of the remaining races owe to the forced retirement of term-limited Republicans Jack Latvala and Don Sullivan.

There is not much hope in sight for a solution to the campaign money problem. But one would have hoped that the courts would intervene to stop the shameless gerrymandering that reserved more than half the Legislature for incumbents or incumbent parties.

Strangely -- shamefully -- in my view, the courts have willfully turned blind eyes to it. It's as if the judicial conscience, which was aroused in the past by malapportionment and by racial prejudice, has no energy left for practices that have the outrageous purpose of assigning voters into districts that are equal only in population; where they are to be "represented" not by politicians they choose, but by politicians who choose them.

This is every bit as sinful as the rural rule, perpetuated under the archaic Constitution of 1868, under which fewer than 18 percent of Florida's voters could elect majorities of the House and Senate. Florida's greatest governor, LeRoy Collins, battled for five years, in seeming futility, for a fair reapportionment. In fact, his labors had helped to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that it could no longer stay aloof from what it had referred to as the "political thicket" of reapportionment. In a string of decisions beginning in 1962, the court saw to it that forever after, districts would be drawn on the premise of one person, one vote. But it has failed to see to it that every person will have a vote to be counted.

Unlike Collins, whose legislative nemeses were known collectively as the "Pork Chop Gang," the current governor has every political reason to be happy with Florida's phony democracy. It affords him a legislature that he can control. But he cannot court favorable comparison with Collins, whom he has said many times that he admires, while remaining indifferent to the theft of our votes.

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