St. Petersburg Times
Instant runoff is still possible, a
Editorial, Sept 17, 2001
Still time for
instant runoff, by Martin Dyckman, July 22, 2001
Instant runoff is still
A Times Editorial
September 17, 2001
Having worried a year ago whether anyone would hoist
their banner against Gov. Jeb Bush next year, Florida Democrats now
have almost too many volunteers on hand. Five well-qualified
candidates have declared. That wouldn't be a problem if there were
to be the traditional runoff primary next year. But without one --
thanks to some cunning moves by the Republicans who rule the
Legislature -- the Democrats may nominate a candidate who commands
only a third or even less of the vote, and who is scarred by
desperation attacks in the final days of the winner-take-all
primary. Bush, of course, will have been renominated by acclamation.
It bears noting that the Republicans set themselves
that favorable stage under cover of a voting reform bill that simply
had to pass. Even Huey Long would have blushed at the cynicism of
It is too late to try to return a separate runoff to
next year's election schedule, but not too late for an instant
runoff. With scarcely any additional time or expense, voters would
have the opportunity to express their second choices at the same
time they cast their first votes. The touch-screen voting machines
that some counties are acquiring easily lend themselves to this
process. With proper preparation, so can the optically scanned
ballot systems that other counties will use.
This isn't rocket science. It's as simple as asking
what other flavor you want if the ice cream shop is out of
pistachio. The Legislature convenes early next year, in January.
That allows plenty of time to do it.
One of the Democratic contenders, House Minority
Leader Lois Frankel, has endorsed the instant runoff concept and has
promised to have a bill introduced. The other candidates,
particularly Janet Reno, need to support it as well. The party's
nominee needs to be a consensus nominee; otherwise, the nomination
will probably not be worth having. Faced with a united request from
the candidates who would be most affected, the Republicans would
have trouble finding a credible premise to refuse.
The instant runoff would also be a clear disincentive
to negative campaigning. Saying bad things about another candidate
is hardly the way to persuade his or her supporters to make you
their second choice.
Utah Republicans did a large if unwitting favor for
Florida Democrats last month. They used an instant runoff to elect
new party officials at their state convention. The process differed
only in scope from what Florida needs to nominate candidates next
year. Voters in San Francisco will vote next year on a plan to
replace their separate scheduled runoff with an instant version, and
Alaska, which has no runoff, will vote on adopting the instant
version for most general elections as well as primaries.
The truth is that the Florida Republicans need a
runoff, instant or otherwise, nearly as much as the Democrats do.
Three Republicans of greatly differing abilities are running for
attorney general. A winner-take-all primary is to the advantage of
the best-known but not necessarily the best-qualified. An instant
runoff is the party's best insurance against embarrassment.
A technically successful instant runoff next year
would also obviate the ensuing dispute about what to do with the
election process in 2004 and beyond, when the new law presumes the
return of the traditional second primary. There is no good reason --
only spiteful ones -- for not trying the instant runoff in 2002.
time for instant runoff
By Martin Dyckman
One of the slickest political tricks of all time was
pulled off in broad daylight this spring when the Republicans
contrived to do away with next year's runoff primaries. If they
don't need one, the Democrats sure do. There may be at least six
plausible Democrats running for governor, not counting the usual
array of nonentities filing for the fun of it. In that event,
someone could be nominated with as little as 16.7 percent of the
vote, which would suit Jeb Bush and the GOP just fine.
If nothing more, they get a Democratic foe who has no
statewide consensus and is open to attack as a sectional or fringe
candidate. What the Republicans most hope, making no secret of it,
is that the Democrats will nominate their best-known potential
candidate, Janet Reno, who is also their most unpopular. Reno's
record as U.S. attorney general would be as much an issue as Bush's
record as governor. Though she's getting plenty of applause at the
moment, the risk is that many in those audiences are self-selected
liberal Democrats. A Democratic poll of all voters found her
unfavorable rating higher than her favorable rating, 41 percent to
35, a dreadful ratio.
Bush would also benefit from the public's inevitable
concern over her Parkinson's disease. The television cameras would
make that point for him.
A winner-take-all primary is hugely advantageous to
the best-known candidate, regardless of his or her controversiality.
In the final showdown, whether in a runoff or in November, the
reverse is true. While it's practically impossible for a candidate
to shed disapproval points, a lesser-known candidate who hasn't made
so many enemies has nowhere to go but up, which is how LeRoy
Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles overcame the
better-known baggage carriers who had led them in first primaries.
The Republicans running the House of Representatives
did not know who might wander in to their trap, but it is looking
better to them than even they could have expected. They did it under
cover of the "must-pass" bill to modernize election procedures and
equipment. One scandal thus begat another. The pretext was that the
election supervisors needed to be rid of the runoff to finesse their
absentee ballot problems, but of course it doesn't matter to the
supervisors who gets nominated or elected so long as they can't be
blamed for it.
The Democrats let it happen. When Bill Posey, the
Senate elections chairman, offered to restore the runoff in exchange
for advancing the primary from September to August, no one took him
up on it. It's now too late for that.
But it is not too late to add an instant runoff to the
primary ballot, now that punch cards are history and every county
will have sophisticated vote-counting equipment. In an instant
runoff, voters mark second and third choices, which aren't counted
until their first choices are out of the running. The Legislature
reconvenes in January, allowing plenty of time.
While costing next to nothing and adding not a day to
the election schedule, it would assure Floridians a choice among
candidates who represent the greatest strengths, rather than the
extremes, of their parties. There can be no honest objection to that
other than, perhaps, the issue of educating voters to the instant
runoff, which shouldn't be hard to do.
Here's how the Center for Voting and Democracy, based
in Washington under the leadership of former Rep. (and presidential
candidate) John Anderson, explains it:
"All the voter has to do is rank one or more
candidates. It's like renting a video or picking an ice cream: What
video (or flavor) do you want? That's your first choice. If they
don't have that video (or flavor), what would you like? That's your
second choice. If they don't have that, what's your third pick?
That's all there is to it. It's as easy as 1-2-3."
The entire 148-member Australian House of
Representatives is elected in this fashion, which produces an
eventual majority winner every time despite very crowded fields.
In Florida's case, we wouldn't necessarily need to
start with an instant runoff in every race, but only in those for
For more details, including the American states and
localities already using or considering this, visit the Center's Web
House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, who is already in
the Democratic gubernatorial race, said last week the instant runoff
"sounds good" to her and she'll have the bill introduced in January.
The Democratic Party may back it with more than words; Bob Poe, the
state chairman, says he thinks there may be legal grounds for the
party to assert the right to a runoff even if the Republicans don't
want one for themselves.
That is probably a long shot, and the better odds are
that the Republicans would kill the bill. But they couldn't claim
absentee ballots as a pretext and their motives would be laid bare.
It would also dramatize to the Democrats why, for them, more is not
better in the race against Bush and why the greatest service most of
them could perform for their party would be to defer to the two or
three who might have a fighting chance to take him out.