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St. Petersburg Times


The case for runoffs: Many of Florida's most revered public officials were elected in runoffs, which some shortsighted lawmakers want to do away with altogether.
December 18, 2002

The late LeRoy Collins is regarded -- by Jeb Bush, among many others -- as Florida's greatest governor. But it bears remembering that he owed his election to the runoff primary that many contemporary politicians want to scrap.

The Legislature's decision to suspend this year's runoffs was a poorly justified 11th hour addition to the election reform bill inspired by the presidential recount controversy. The law calls for runoffs to return in 2004, but the governor's elections task force has now recommended putting them off two years longer. As Secretary of State Jim Smith remarked, the runoff appears destined for a "slow death."

Florida would be heedless of its history to let that happen. Not only Collins, but also Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham, would likely have ended their careers in the state Senate without an opportunity for voters to register a majority vote in a runoff primary. That Collins, Chiles, Askew and Graham were all popular Democrats is an interesting circumstance, given that most of the pressure to scrap the runoff comes from Republicans. However, there are Republican legislators who owe their careers to the runoff, too. It is an equal opportunity institution.

The case against the runoff, as asserted by the supervisors of election, is based on typically poor voter turnout and the great difficulty of preparing for three elections, including the mailing of absentee ballots, within a two-month time span. Those problems are real, but easily solved.

Then, too, as Pasco's Supervisor Kurt Browning told the task force, there has never been a provision for runoffs in the November election, even though the involvement of third-party candidates can lead to someone winning with less than 50 percent.

"If you can be elected without the majority of votes cast," he asked, "why do we need to carry that back so you have to be nominated with the majority of votes cast?"

That was a good question, but not the right one.

Why not provide for a runoff in the general election as well as in the primaries?

This need not -- and should not -- be a separate sequential election such as Louisiana just endured. New voting technologies lend themselves to an instant runoff, in which voters would mark second choices to be tallied promptly in the event that no one has an outright majority.

It isn't rocket science. San Francisco voters opted this year for an instant runoff for major city offices, starting next year. In Vermont, where the Legislature selects the governor, lieutenant governor or treasurer if no candidate wins a majority, 52 of 55 town meetings voted this year to endorse instant-runoff voting.

As a side benefit, the instant runoff would be a powerful disincentive to negative campaigns. Voters aren't likely to bestow their second-choice votes on candidates who had been bashing their favorites.

The 2004 election cycle would be a good opportunity to experiment with instant runoff voting for the Florida House and Senate. With good results, it could be applied to all races, including governor and Cabinet, in 2006.

This year's elections, the first without runoffs, saw nine legislators nominated with less than majority support. All won easily (two had no ballot opposition) in November. As third parties and independent candidates become more of a factor, thanks to liberalized ballot access, Florida could soon be seating a lot of lawmakers who represent fringe groups rather than majority support. The case for the instant runoff is compelling.

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