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Daytona Beach News-Journal

Rewriting Florida election laws and hoping the jokes stop
By Mark Lane
June 6, 2003 

Right now, it looks as though the Legislature will put off the problem and keep the one-primary system in place for just one more election.

But if we're going to run electoral experiments, why not really experiment? There's a third way to hold a primary nobody is talking about. That would be to ask voters to rank candidates in order of preference and have an instant runoff using voters' second choices. This is already done in places like Ireland and Australia.

The main objection, other than the novelty of the idea, is that it's too complicated. Voters won't get it.

In other words, this is still Flori-duh. Our voters just aren't smart enough to do this. Maybe we've taken all those recount jokes too much to heart.

Use the words "Florida" and "elections" in the same sentence and people suspect you're looking for cheap laughs. So we shouldn't be too surprised if there was snickering in the back of the room at news that Florida election laws will be revised, yet again, in the upcoming special session.

The job can't be put off. The state needs to put its election law in sync with federal law to qualify for $83 million in federal funds.

Given the current budgetary problems, $83 million would be nice to have. One might even be tempted to ask why the Legislature didn't do this the first time around.

The reason is an impasse over primary elections. Last year's one-primary, winner-take-all arrangement was an experiment. A one-year-only thing. The state needs to figure out what to do next year.

Before 2002, Florida had two-part primaries. If you had three or more candidates in one party, a primary election would be held. If nobody got a majority in the primary, a runoff election would be held to choose between the top two vote-getters.

Example: When Jeb Bush ran for governor in 1994, he was one of seven candidates in the Republican primary. He did not get a majority, but came in first with 46 percent of the vote. He would have faced Jim Smith in a runoff except Smith, with 18 percent of the vote, didn't wish to be squashed like a bug and dropped out.

Bush's experience with two-part primaries was that they are wastes of time. Johnnie Byrd, the speaker the House, had the opposite experience. When he first ran for the Florida House in 1996, Byrd ran a close second in a four-way primary. In a winner-take-all primary, he would have taken nothing. Instead, he won the runoff.

Democrats' experiences make them like two-part primaries, too. The legends of the party -- governors Lawton Chiles, Bob Graham, Reuben Askew and LeRoy Collins -- all lost crowded primaries early in their careers only to triumph against better-known, well-funded frontrunners in runoffs.

That's the problem with writing election law: Every legislator is an expert. Everyone remembers his experiences.

Those who like winner-take-all primaries say runoff elections are too expensive and inconvenient. Voters don't show up for them. What's more, there's no time for new computerized voting systems to be set up for them.

This last argument strikes me as odd. Weren't old-fashioned, clattering pull-the-lever machines routinely set up for runoffs? Aren't computers supposed to be faster and more flexible?

And in a seven-way primary, like 1998's, there is at least a mathematical possibility of somebody winning with no more than 13 percent of the vote. That's one way to settle elections, but it's not democracy.

Right now, it looks as though the Legislature will put off the problem and keep the one-primary system in place for just one more election.

But if we're going to run electoral experiments, why not really experiment? There's a third way to hold a primary nobody is talking about. That would be to ask voters to rank candidates in order of preference and have an instant runoff using voters' second choices. This is already done in places like Ireland and Australia.

The main objection, other than the novelty of the idea, is that it's too complicated. Voters won't get it.

In other words, this is still Flori-duh. Our voters just aren't smart enough to do this.

Maybe we've taken all those recount jokes too much to heart.


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