March 30, 2003
As Florida politicians argue about what
to do with the runoff primary, it would be instructive for them to
keep French President Jacques Chirac in mind.
Only 11 months
ago, Chirac was scarcely more popular with his own people than he is
among Americans today, polling a miserable 19.9 percent in the first
round of the French election. Even so, he won the runoff a month
later with a record 82 percent of the vote. Had it been a fair
election, he would not have won by nearly so large a margin, and
might not have won at all.
Chirac's dumb luck was to have
Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme rightist, as his runoff opponent. Le
Pen's 17 percent share, in a field of 16, was just large enough to
edge out Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, whom everyone
had expected to be in the runoff. With Le Pen in it, the runoff
campaign took on the aura of a national emergency.
disgusting," remarked the Economist, "that voters in one of the
world's richest and most civilized countries should now have to
choose as their president either a washed-up if amiable opportunist
regularly lampooned on television as 'Superliar,' or, by way of an
alternative, a thug whose message is one of hate."
to that because France relies on a conventional runoff system that
makes it easy for well-drilled extremist groups like Le Pen's
National Front to get their guy into the finals. Though Le Pen
didn't win in the end, he did deny a representative choice to the
nearly two-thirds of the electorate that had not voted for either
him or Chirac.
It is tantalizing to wonder who might have
won had France employed an instant runoff system, like Ireland's,
that allows voters to rank all their preferences in a single
election. Le Pen was no one's second choice. Had voters been able to
simultaneously express their true second choices, the finalists
likely would have been Chirac and Jospin. The winner could have
claimed a legitimate consensus that Chirac still lacks despite the
huge success of his party in the subsequent parliamentary elections.
A friend in Paris advises that it was the tenuousness of
Chirac's true support that prompted him to confront the United
States and Britain over Iraq.
"We're a very democratic
country. Chirac knows damn well he's got to toe the line. That 80
percent was ridiculous," says Genevieve Guth-Kitts, who teaches
American civilization at the Sorbonne in Paris. "This is why he has
led against America. He's had to become more left than Jospin could
have been. He knows the minute he does something wrong, he's got
5-million people in the street."
France's experience bears
remembering in the context of Florida's now-you-see-it-now-you-don't
runoff political party primary. For various reasons, most of them
political, the Republican-controlled Legislature shelved the runoff
last year under a "sunset" procedure that returns the second round
to each party's 2004 ballot (and thereafter) unless the Legislature
To revive the runoff as it was means that one or
both of the major parties could find themselves with finalists who
would be nobody's second choice if there were others.
is still better than nominating without a primary, in which case a
fringe candidate might more easily win. In 1954, for example, Senate
President Charlie Johns, a rabid segregationist and leader of the
rural "Pork Chop Gang," who had become acting governor on Dan
McCarty's death the year before, led the first Democratic primary
with 38 percent of the vote. Two progressive candidates had split
the rest. LeRoy Collins handily whipped Johns in the runoff and
became Florida's greatest governor. It is nightmarish to contemplate
what might have happened had Johns won.
runoff has problems of cost, low turnout, and greater burden on
election officials that could all be put to rest with an instant
runoff. The bonus is that this would assure Floridians of what the
French didn't have: the opportunity to pick a consensus choice.
There is no rocket science to the idea. Voters simply rank
their choices in order of preference and the computers take care of
the rest. But Florida's election supervisors, who have the
Legislature's ear, would have to be pushed into it. They make a case
that 2004 would be too soon, given everything else new that they
have had to do in the last several years. But there is no good
reason why they shouldn't be able to do it by 2006, when we next
choose a governor. As always, politics is complicating what ought to
be a simple choice. Some Republican senators object that a runoff
would help their nemesis, House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd, win the GOP
gubernatorial nomination. (Without saying it, they are making the
case for an instant rather than a conventional runoff.) But Byrd,
who favors a runoff, holds all the cards; if no bill passes -- an
outcome he can assure -- the runoff returns.
So why not take
this chance to do it right?