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    Partisan crossovers to flavor primary

    For the first time, registered Republicans and Democrats can vote in their rival party's primary.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 5, 2000

    Today's elections will have a different flavor than past years, thanks to universal primaries and term limits.

    Voters will have more candidates to choose from, since open seats have drawn a passel of candidates. In some races voters will be able to cross party lines.

    Add to that the rise of independent voters -- many of them new to the rolls -- that some attribute to the so-called "motor voter" law, and this year's election truly becomes a strange political stew.

    In Republican-dominated Pinellas County, where the election of a Democrat to a countywide office is a rarity, open primaries will give registered Democrats a say in deciding who will be sheriff, tax collector and public defender.

    In Pasco, Republicans will get to choose between two Democratic candidates for tax collector. And in Hillsborough, Republican voters in House District 59 will get to choose between two Democrats.

    Confused? You would not be alone.

    Myrtle Smith-Carroll, a state and national Democratic committeewoman from St. Petersburg, said she has gotten phone calls from stalwart Democrats who are having a difficult time figuring out which Republicans they ought to vote for.

    "This is the first opportunity they've had to cross party lines, and they're not tuned in to the backgrounds of all of the candidates," she said.

    The ripple effects don't stop there. Getting the message out to a wider range of voters has affected campaigns, both increasing costs and causing subtle shifts in how candidates sell themselves.

    Candidates have to make themselves appealing to a broader range of voters, said Rockie Pennington, who runs Direct Mail Systems, based in Clearwater.

    "The hot buttons for Republicans are not the same for Democrats," said Pennington, who is working on a variety of Republican races around the state. "Republicans talk about guns, they talk about taxes, they talk about abortion. Democrats are not interested in those things. They want to hear about social issues."

    Pennington said he thinks it could be beneficial to Republicans who might otherwise tailor their message to placate the most conservative Republicans. Those positions stick with candidates, who either must live by them in their political lives, or flip-flop on issues and take criticism for it, he said.

    "You've got to talk to all voters, and that's not a bad thing," he said.

    Political consultant Mary Repper also has seen a shift in the way candidates present themselves to voters.

    "I have noticed that my clients who are running in open primaries have emphasized their parties less," said Repper, who is based in Clearwater.

    The bad part, especially for low-budget campaigns, comes when it's time to pay for getting the message out to more voters.

    "It has driven up the costs of the campaigns," Repper said. "It's been more expensive for those folks. And it has made television a more attractive buy in the countywide races."

    One countywide mailing to all Republicans and Democrats who consistently vote costs $30,000 to $40,000 -- far more than it would cost to target one party.

    When you start talking that kind of money, you're into television.

    "For $30,000 you can practically own cable for a week," Repper said.

    The election changes have their roots in a constitutional amendment Floridians approved two years ago that makes primaries in which all candidates hail from one party open to all voters.

    Some candidates, who thought they might fare better if only their party's voters could cast ballots in their race, recruited write-in candidates. That, in effect, closes the primary to voters outside the party. The primary winner faces the write-in candidate in the general election on Nov. 7.

    "It's kind of a shame, but all the candidates figure out early on that if they thought that open primaries were going to hurt them, they got one of their friends to sign up as a write-in," Pennington said. "That was a conscious decision to disenfranchise voters, and that's a shame."

    Conversely, the 1995 federal law, often referred to as the "motor voter" act, was designed to draw people into the political process. The law allows people to register to vote when they get driver's licenses, or visit libraries or social service agencies.

    Voter registration numbers for Florida show the number of independent voters has increased by more than 400,000 since 1996, an increase that some political observers attribute to motor voter. Florida has about 8.4-million registered voters.

    Independent voters can cast ballots in universal primaries and non-partisan judicial and school board races.

    The rise in independents, says political consultant Jack Hebert, doesn't mean they'll all go to the polls. Computer analysis, said Hebert, shows that more than three-quarters of them are not regular voters.

    "What we found is that a lot of those weren't translating into voters," Hebert said. "But I don't think you can ignore those people. Some of them are defecting from the major parties, too."

    State Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat who is coordinating House races statewide for the Democratic party, said the independents could swing 20 to 25 House races in Florida.

    "I'm going to guess that in several of the races the independents are going to be the battle grounds," Frankel said.

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