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
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.
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
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.
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
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.