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Lessons in voting from the French

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003


TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida politicians argue about what to do with the runoff primary, it would be instructive for them to keep French President Jacques Chirac in mind.

Only 11 months ago, Chirac was scarcely more popular with his own people than he is among Americans today, polling a miserable 19.9 percent in the first round of the French election. Even so, he won the runoff a month later with a record 82 percent of the vote. Had it been a fair election, he would not have won by nearly so large a margin, and might not have won at all.

Chirac's dumb luck was to have Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme rightist, as his runoff opponent. Le Pen's 17 percent share, in a field of 16, was just large enough to edge out Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, whom everyone had expected to be in the runoff. With Le Pen in it, the runoff campaign took on the aura of a national emergency.

"It is disgusting," remarked the Economist, "that voters in one of the world's richest and most civilized countries should now have to choose as their president either a washed-up if amiable opportunist regularly lampooned on television as 'Superliar,' or, by way of an alternative, a thug whose message is one of hate."

It came to that because France relies on a conventional runoff system that makes it easy for well-drilled extremist groups like Le Pen's National Front to get their guy into the finals. Though Le Pen didn't win in the end, he did deny a representative choice to the nearly two-thirds of the electorate that had not voted for either him or Chirac.

It is tantalizing to wonder who might have won had France employed an instant runoff system, like Ireland's, that allows voters to rank all their preferences in a single election. Le Pen was no one's second choice. Had voters been able to simultaneously express their true second choices, the finalists likely would have been Chirac and Jospin. The winner could have claimed a legitimate consensus that Chirac still lacks despite the huge success of his party in the subsequent parliamentary elections.

A friend in Paris advises that it was the tenuousness of Chirac's true support that prompted him to confront the United States and Britain over Iraq.

"We're a very democratic country. Chirac knows damn well he's got to toe the line. That 80 percent was ridiculous," says Genevieve Guth-Kitts, who teaches American civilization at the Sorbonne in Paris. "This is why he has led against America. He's had to become more left than Jospin could have been. He knows the minute he does something wrong, he's got 5-million people in the street."

France's experience bears remembering in the context of Florida's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't runoff political party primary. For various reasons, most of them political, the Republican-controlled Legislature shelved the runoff last year under a "sunset" procedure that returns the second round to each party's 2004 ballot (and thereafter) unless the Legislature acts again.

To revive the runoff as it was means that one or both of the major parties could find themselves with finalists who would be nobody's second choice if there were others.

This is still better than nominating without a primary, in which case a fringe candidate might more easily win. In 1954, for example, Senate President Charlie Johns, a rabid segregationist and leader of the rural "Pork Chop Gang," who had become acting governor on Dan McCarty's death the year before, led the first Democratic primary with 38 percent of the vote. Two progressive candidates had split the rest. LeRoy Collins handily whipped Johns in the runoff and became Florida's greatest governor. It is nightmarish to contemplate what might have happened had Johns won.

The traditional runoff has problems of cost, low turnout, and greater burden on election officials that could all be put to rest with an instant runoff. The bonus is that this would assure Floridians of what the French didn't have: the opportunity to pick a consensus choice.

There is no rocket science to the idea. Voters simply rank their choices in order of preference and the computers take care of the rest. But Florida's election supervisors, who have the Legislature's ear, would have to be pushed into it. They make a case that 2004 would be too soon, given everything else new that they have had to do in the last several years. But there is no good reason why they shouldn't be able to do it by 2006, when we next choose a governor. As always, politics is complicating what ought to be a simple choice. Some Republican senators object that a runoff would help their nemesis, House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd, win the GOP gubernatorial nomination. (Without saying it, they are making the case for an instant rather than a conventional runoff.) But Byrd, who favors a runoff, holds all the cards; if no bill passes -- an outcome he can assure -- the runoff returns.

So why not take this chance to do it right?

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