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Senate writes obituary for runoff elections

Gov. Bush is expected to sign off on the demise of a century-old tradition.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 29, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Florida's runoff election, which endured for decades but is now criticized as a costly and inefficient anachronism, will soon be a relic of the state's political past.

The Senate on Thursday voted 25-14 to make permanent the temporary ban on runoffs that began in 2002. The House passed the bill (House Bill 1673) on April 7.

Gov. Jeb Bush has said he supports the move, which was sought by Florida election supervisors.

Supervisors say improvements in voting technology and the popularity of early voting make it difficult to hold three elections in two months and comply with federal rules for getting ballots to Florida voters overseas.

They urged lawmakers to end the runoff or hold the first primary, now in September, earlier.

If Bush signs the bill, Florida will become the first state in the South to eliminate the century-old runoff, a relic of the Jim Crow era designed to make it harder for blacks to get nominated.

From now on, the leading vote getter in a crowded primary will be the nominee, even if the candidate got less than 50 percent of the vote.

"The new rules of engagement really make keeping the second primary problematic, because in order to comply with the federal law, you would have to have the first primary at a time that would be, in Florida, difficult, like Aug. 1," Bush said. "This would maintain the traditional date for our primary and give us time to do things like overseas ballots."

Supporters of the runoff said it forced political parties to find a consensus candidate. Some Democrats cited former Democratic Govs. Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles as examples.

But critics said runoffs generated poor turnouts, averaging around 10 percent, and that a decision by a tiny minority of voters is not a good reason to keep them. Holding a statewide runoff costs more than $10-million.

The lack of a runoff in 2002 allowed Sen. Larcenia Bullard to win the Democratic nomination for a Miami area Senate seat with 8,999 votes, or 26 percent.

Whether eliminating runoffs helps or hurts candidates is the subject of speculation. One Republican strategist said lawmakers themselves weren't sure.

"People opted for efficiency and less cost, and there was no clear advantage to doing otherwise," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a lobbyist and adviser to GOP candidates.

All of Tampa Bay's senators voted to eliminate the runoff except Les Miller, D-Tampa. Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, did not vote.

Also voting no was Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, a candidate for governor. He called the runoff the "fairest way" to make sure a nominee for an office represents the majority of the party's voters.

Times staff writer Carrie Johnson contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 29, 2005, 00:33:10]


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