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Poor reform to a September primary

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's election supervisors, who have wanted for years to be rid of the runoff primary, complained that they couldn't conduct three elections in nine weeks without doing injustice to absentee voters overseas. So the tail has wagged the dog, and they'll get their wish.

The Senate did not agree to this without considerable anxiety being expressed by Republicans as well as Democrats. Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, whose committee wrote the bill, said he would prefer to keep the runoff. But the first primary would have to be in August instead of the day after Labor Day "if we're to have risk-free elections," he said, and he hadn't found any senator who was keen on that.

There weren't any on the Senate floor that day either. Their comfort and/or convenience was apparently more important than preserving an election system that has been responsible for Florida's best governors.

To imagine Florida had LeRoy Collins lost to acting-Gov. Charley Johns in 1954, think Mississippi.

Posey had a point when he assured colleagues they had little to fear from angry voters "if they are the only ones who turn out for the runoff." Runoff turnout has indeed been dismal, running as low as 7 percent when there was no exciting statewide race to spark interest.

But that overlooks the underlying reason. First, some history:

Though turnout in the runoffs has averaged only 22 percent since 1970, the average was twice as high in the eight statewide runoffs from 1954 through 1970. More people voted in five of those runoffs than had voted in the first primaries. Since 1968, however, that has happened only twice. As a matter of fact, turnout in the first primaries has been down markedly since 1970. Before then, it averaged 53.5 percent. From 1970 since, it has averaged only 31.5 percent.

So something more than the runoff must be to blame for its poor turnouts.

That something, argues former Secretary of State Jim Smith, was the well-intentioned decision to move the first primary from May to September.

He is right. The September primary took effect in 1970. The turnout that year, despite spirited gubernatorial races in both parties, dropped 20 percent from 1966, when 56 of every 100 eligible voters had voted.

In that first September election, four Democrats spent a sweaty summer competing for the right to take on incumbent Claude R. Kirk Jr., the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, whose antics and power grabs had split his own party. State Sen. Reubin Askew of Pensacola, who had begun the campaign with nearly invisible name-recognition in the polls, came from behind to defeat Attorney General Earl Faircloth in the Democratic runoff.

Faircloth could not have beaten Kirk. Askew did, and made it look easy, in large part because voters perceived him as a fresh new face. The runoff had made it possible for Democrats to nominate their most attractive candidate. Had there been no runoff, Askew said, he would not have entered the race.

The Republicans, who have no such history to enamor them of the runoff, have potentially as much to lose from scrapping it. The danger to both parties is twofold: that their nominees will be chosen with a third or less of the vote, carrying no enthusiasm into the general election, and that left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans may exploit the opportunity.

This is somewhat less of a risk for the Republicans, who have a strong party machinery to discourage upstarts. The Republican brass would even do away with primaries, if they could. It is a discipline taught by their long years out of power. The Democrats -- in whose regard the political scientist V.O. Key Jr. famously described Florida politics as "every man for himself" -- never needed a party boss. Now they do, but no one in their formal party structure fits the description. The task falls by default to the U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson. The party can afford to have at most three Democrats, not six, run for governor next year if it doesn't want to face the general election with a nonconsensus candidate.

All these problems could be afforded, while still saving all the money that the runoff costs, if Florida provided second-choice voting on the first primary ballot. It couldn't be done with punch-card ballots, but they're soon to be history, too. Every other method makes the instant runoff feasible now. All that's lacking in Tallahassee is the interest.

It's painful to recall that the September primary was a "reform." Campaigns would cost less if they were shorter. It was another paving brick on the road to hell.

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