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Voters tend to ignore nonpartisan candidates

Tens of thousands made no choice in contests to pick school board members and judges.

Published November 11, 2006


Of those who went to the polls in Pinellas County on Tuesday, fewer than 1 percent did not cast a vote for governor.

Just 2 percent did not vote in the U.S. Senate race.

Even in the race for agriculture commissioner, just 4 percent failed to vote.

But in the countywide School Board race between Peggy O'Shea and Sean Michael O'Flannery, more than one in five voters - 65,708 to be exact - decided not to make a choice.

The disparity in voter participation was by no means unique. Around Tampa Bay, voters made sure to make their wishes known in the race for governor, for national and state legislators and for county commissioners.

But tens of thousands made no choice in races for school board members and for circuit and county judges.

The difference? Those races are nonpartisan.

Partisan races get flak for being, well, partisan. But give all that hard-nosed us-vs.-them stuff credit: It gets the votes out.

"Parties have been criticized for weakening the United States," said Matthew Corrigan, a professor of politics at the University of North Florida. "But they also offer a major indicator, at least for voters, of who to support. And in today's environment, when it's a lot more partisan, party labels matter even more.

"Take them away," Corrigan said, "and people are lost."

- - -

In the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Group 32 race, 21 percent of voters cast no vote. It was 17 percent in Pasco County's District 3 School Board race; 13 percent in Citrus County's School Board District 1 race.

The tally of undervotes in Hillsborough and Hernando counties was unavailable. But the math says about 19 percent of Hillsborough voters didn't pick either of the two candidates in the Group 44 circuit judge race.

Pinellas School Board candidate Jennifer Crockett wasn't surprised to learn 17 percent of voters chose not to vote in the south county District 7 race she lost to Mary Brown.

"I think when a lot of people go in to vote, they want to vote for governor, or they have a specific candidate they want to vote for," she said, "and they don't spend the time on the rest."

Corrigan said voters have nothing to fall back on if they don't know who the candidates are.

That leads to another problem: Voters don't know who the candidates are.

"There is no partisan identification and many people go in and they just don't know who to vote for," said Jack Latvala, a former state senator and political consultant. "So instead of making a wrong decision, they just don't make a decision."

- - -

What's wrong with that?

"If you have that many undervotes I think that's a concern because democracy just doesn't work if people aren't making choices," Corrigan said. "That indicates people aren't interested or don't have a lot of information."

Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning agrees with the diagnosis, but asks: "Do you want people voting that don't know anything about the candidates?"

Nonpartisan candidates aren't sure how to help voters with that problem. Their races are low-profile, their resources limited. Judicial candidates are even limited in what they can tell voters. Pasco's Group 7 county judge race is a prime example of a nonpartisan race where the candidates did everything they could to get votes - and thousands still chose not to vote.

Candy VanDercar and Frank Grey II met voters daily, hit all the forums, invested all the time and money they could. Together, they spent more than $180,000.

VanDercar, barring a count of provisional ballots, leads by 59 votes. But this is the number that shocked both candidates: about 23,000 voters - 18 percent of the total - did not make a choice.

VanDercar doesn't get it. Aren't voters more likely to fight a speeding ticket in front of a judge than meet the governor? "I'm more than stunned," she said. "I mean how can 20,000 people choose not to participate?"

[Last modified November 11, 2006, 05:45:52]

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