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Lawmakers ready to abolish runoff

As election reform moves forward, both houses of the Florida Legislature act to do away with the second primary, which has helped many a governor.

By LUCY MORGAN and ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


As election reform moves forward, both houses of the Florida Legislature act to do away with the second primary, which has helped many a governor.

TALLAHASSEE -- The second primary, an election tradition that has put some of the state's best-known governors in office, appears to be on its way out.

For years the state's elections supervisors have tried to get legislators to abolish the runoff, which was created in an era when white politicians wanted to keep black candidates from winning. But legislators balked at getting rid of an institution that helped elect Democrats LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham.

Now, with Republicans in charge and the spotlight on election reforms that would help the state avoid the kind of embarrassment it experienced during the presidential recount last year, both houses of the Legislature are moving toward getting rid of the runoff.

Gov. Jeb Bush could support it too, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

"I could go either way," Bush said. He said he is more interested in being sure the state gets rid of punch card ballots and passes other reforms recommended by a task force he appointed.

The measure is included in one of several election bills that passed the House earlier this week. It won preliminary approval in the Senate on Thursday.

Currently, Florida allows two-party primary elections.

The first primary, usually in early September, features all the candidates of a party; if no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters face each other in a runoff or second primary. The winner of that primary advances to the general election, facing the candidate who emerged from the other party.

The primary system emerged when Florida had a one-party system -- Democrats dominated the state -- and winning the Democratic primary meant winning the office. Over the years, Collins, Askew, Graham and Chiles all came in second in the first primary, only to win the second primary and ultimately the general election.

The Senate's vote to get rid of the second primary Thursday came despite warnings from opponents that it benefits incumbents and could help extremists win office.

Supporters of the bill say it will save counties $5-million every two years and will ensure candidates are selected by greater numbers of voters. Second primaries traditionally have low turnouts.

"If not for a runoff, I wouldn't be here," said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican who has fought past efforts to eliminate the second primary.

"But I have had a change in attitude. I think it's very hard to justify such a small number of people controlling the outcome," Latvala said.

Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, disagreed. She said rural districts often draw multiple candidates for the same seat, and voters don't get to hear substantive debate on the issues until the field is narrowed to the two runoff candidates.

"We need that second primary," Holzendorf said.

Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the runoff also protects the public from fringe candidates.

"We should be sending people to this body and the one across the rotunda with majorities, with mandates," said Wasserman Shultz, D-Pembroke Pines.

But Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, said dumping the runoff acts as a form of campaign finance reform because it would eliminate one of the $500 maximum donations contributors can give.

"Some of you may be distressed that you'll have one less opportunity for that $500 . . . from a campaign supporter," Posey said.

A task force appointed by the governor to look at election-law reforms did not recommend the elimination of the second primary in its report earlier this year.

Yet the League of Women Voters has long advocated getting rid of the runoff. So do elections supervisors, who want to eliminate the primary because they need more time to get general election ballots prepared and mailed overseas.

Eliminating the runoff would allow absentee ballots for the general election to be returned in time to be counted on Election Day. Under current law, the state has to wait 10 days to receive overseas ballots. Until November the delay never affected a statewide race, but the close vote between George W. Bush and Al Gore left a nation waiting for Florida's overseas absentees before a winner could be determined.

Thursday, legislators grappled with a dozen or so bills that would dump punch card voting, require new modern voting equipment, clean up recounts and fix other problems that surfaced last year. Lobbyists for Common Cause and the League of Women Voters praised the Senate bills and denounced the House for raising campaign contribution limits and making it harder to raise matching money that qualifies for public financing.

"The House bill does more harm than good," said Norene Chase, spokesman for the League. "The leadership of the House demonstrates a lack of commitment to election reform."

Wednesday, House members approved a series of election reform bills eliminating the runoff and raising the maximum contribution candidates can accept from $500 to $1,000.

Ben Wilcox, lobbyist for Common Cause, and other election reform supporters questioned whether the House and Senate can get together in time to fashion an election reform package that will meet the need demonstrated during the presidential recount.

"The state of Florida has been humiliated," Chase said. "This isn't the kind of legislation that should wait until the final days."

In addition to eliminating the runoff, the bill senators tentatively approved would add money for counties to educate voters, require counties to post a voter's bill of rights in polling places, automatically restore some ex-felons' right to vote and ease restrictions on absentee voting.

It also would add a provisional ballot for people who don't appear on voter rolls but insist they are registered. Their ballot would be placed in a special envelope, and the county supervisor of elections would later determine if that person's ballot should count.

This was a direct result of the last election, amendment sponsor Posey said.

"We know we had some felons who voted, we know we had some innocent people who were hassled about voting," Posey said.

The House has rejected a provision to restore voting rights to felons as well as a number of other measures included in the Senate bills. It will be up to legislative leaders to reach a compromise before their annual session ends May 4.

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