| South Florida Sun-Sentinel ∙ Decatur Daily |
In 1992, as ever since, the Democratic primary was the decisive election in what is now Florida’s 20th Congressional District. Alcee Hastings won it in a runoff with 22,046 votes and held the seat without serious challenge until his death on April 6 this year.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination to succeed him in the canvass scheduled Friday, with the top two candidates virtually tied, will claim the prize with fewer than 12,000 votes. That’s barely half as many as Hastings had in a less-populated district 29 years ago. Most of the voters this time will have favored someone other than the winner, whose credibility in Congress could be diminished by such a pitiful showing of support.
That’s no way to elect a Congress or run a nation. Democracy depends on the consent of the governed. Apathy is not an acceptable substitute.
”The Florida runoff originated for a good reason. Florida sorely needs to implement the modern version.
It is true that special elections, like this one, commonly post poor turnouts. Only 16.4% of the district’s registered Democrats even voted Nov. 2, and less than a fourth of those nominated the winner. Many others could have been bewildered by a field of 11 candidates in the primary, and so chose no one. That said, it’s still unfortunate that more than three out of every four who did vote will have no one of their choice in the general election. That’s because there’s no runoff.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As we reported recently, New York City had splendid success with ranked choice voting in its June primary for mayor and other local offices. That method, sometimes known as instant runoff, allowed voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference. As the lowest-polling candidates were eliminated, the secondary choices of their supporters were redistributed to the remaining candidates. That process continued until only two remained.
That made Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and now mayor-elect, a majority nominee despite having only a final margin of 0.8%. Had only first-choices mattered, he would have been the nominee with a mere 30%. The runner-up would have finished third.
More than eight in every 10 voters exercised their multiple choices, disappointing anyone who hoped the new system would fail. But the participation rate was only in the 70s in lower-income neighborhoods, which suggests that officials need to mount an even better civic education effort next time. For a first-time venture, though, it was impressive and should set an example for other places, especially Florida.
Ranked choice voting, which necessitates only one trip to the polls, is an improvement over the runoff primaries Florida used to have. But by having neither, the state invites dubious results.
The runoff gave Florida some of its best governors, including LeRoy Collins in 1954, Reubin Askew in 1970, and Bob Graham in 1978. Lawton Chiles, a future governor, needed the 1970 runoff to defeat a segregationist former governor for the U.S. Senate nomination.
The Republicans had not been so dependent on primaries to promote their strongest candidates. After they took control of the Legislature, the Republicans suspended the runoff in 2002 and repealed it entirely in 2005. It seemed to have been a self-serving attempt to keep former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno from winning the Democratic nomination to oppose incumbent Jeb Bush in 2002. If so, it succeeded.
Opponents of the runoff, including a few Democrats, argued that voter participation was normally too poor to justify the expense and that it was a vestige of Southern discrimination against Black candidates. Election supervisors said that there wasn’t time for a runoff between the August primaries and November general election.
The Florida runoff originated for a good reason. At the time, it was a one-party state where the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election. The runoff filled the role of a general election. It had nothing to do with race — the racist element had already been baked into the system, since Black Floridians weren’t even allowed to register as Democrats.
Nor was it always true that the runoff drew fewer votes than the first primary. The turnout was greater in Hastings’ 1992 runoff with Lois Frankel, who now represents another district in Congress. It was higher in the 1954 runoff, arguably the most important election in Florida history, in which Collins defeated the acting governor, Senate President Charley Johns, who had voted against unmasking the Ku Klux Klan.
Ironically, the runoff primary system that went into effect in 1932 in Florida was a replacement for an early version of ranked-choice voting in which citizens could mark a second choice along with their first. It was poorly understood and unpopular, chiefly because it took too long to produce final returns in an age that did not have scanners to read the ballots and computers to accumulate the results.
Florida sorely needs to implement the modern version. FairVote, the public interest organization that promotes ranked choice voting nationally, counts 43 jurisdictions that used it in their most recent elections, including the states of Alaska and Maine.
In Florida, the cities of Sarasota and Clearwater had hoped to use it for municipal elections, but called off their plans because the Florida Department of State hasn’t approved the necessary software nor shown any interest in doing so.
According to FairVote, “Ranked choice voting makes democracy more fair and functional. It works in a variety of contexts. It is a simple change that can have a big impact.”
It’s time, Florida. No one should ever be nominated again with less than a majority consensus.