Winning with less than 23% of the vote: The problem with crowded primaries in Florida

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Ranked-choice voting could lead to candidates who better reflect their districts.

After suspending them for two election cycles, Florida eliminated primary runoff elections — known officially as “Second Primaries” — in 2005.

The reason given was that county Supervisors of Elections said they didn’t have enough time between August and November to run an additional election. As a result, state lawmakers passed HB 1673 and then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law.

Since that time, there have been countless primary elections with three or more candidates where the winner did not get over 50% of the vote. In many of those primaries, the winner didn’t even get a third of the vote before moving on to the general election.

This has happened more in the last four years than in the past 10 years combined.

The most extreme example in recent memory is the 2016 Democratic primary for House District 108, where Roy Hardemon only managed to get to 22% of the vote in a seven-person field. To put his primary win into context, 17 of the losing candidates in the other Democratic state House primary races that year received more votes than Hardemon.

In the 2018 primary election for HD 108, there were only three candidates and the then-incumbent Hardemon lost even though he received 36% of the vote.

In 2020, we’ve again had many primary races where there are large groups of candidates, and we ended up with two-dozen federal and state primary winners who earned less than half the vote.

The most notable examples this year were the Republican primaries Florida’s 3rd and 19th Congressional Districts, which had 10 and nine candidates on the ballot, respectively.

The CD 3 election saw Kat Cammack win with just over 25% of the vote. In CD 19, state Rep. Byron Donalds won with 23%.

The problem with allowing primary winners to have such a small share of their constituents’ votes is the increased chance of having a winning candidate who does not well represent the political beliefs and values of the voters in their district, and even sometimes those of their own party.

Without the Second Primary we would not have had Govs. Bob Graham and Reubin Askew or U.S. Sen.   Lawton Chiles, none of whom finished first in their party primaries, not to mention countless other down-ballot candidates who did not get the most votes in their first primaries, yet went on to win their second and then elected office.

One possible solution, and one that would not result in an extra election, is to use ranked choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting.

Dozens of municipalities around the country run their elections using this method, and Maine is now using it for all of its state and federal elections. Even statewide political parties such as the Virginia Republican Party have used RCV to elect party officials.

In a ranked choice voting system, voters are given the option to vote for each candidate as their first, second, third, etc. choice in any election with more than two candidates.

When voting is complete, the elections office will tabulate all of the first-choice votes. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, then the candidate with the least number of votes is dropped, and the second choice of the voters who had ranked the dropped candidate as their first choice are counted for the remaining candidates. This process repeats until one of the candidates gets a majority of the vote.

In the case of the 2018 San Francisco mayoral election, the results went into the 9th round of tabulation before a single candidate had over 50% of the vote.

Here in Florida, there is a newly formed organization called “Rank My Vote Florida” that is working on implementing ranked choice voting in our state.

Back in 2007, voters in the City of Sarasota passed a referendum by over 77% to conduct their city’s elections using RCV.

Sarasota County’s Supervisor of Elections office has voting equipment and software capable of tabulating RCV ballots, but the Florida Secretary of State has not yet certified the equipment.

According to Perry Waag, treasurer of Rank My Vote Florida, ” … we have engaged the services of a well-respected Tallahassee attorney to make a legal case supporting Sarasota and it was presented to the Division of Elections earlier this year. Instead of being blown off we got asked procedural questions of how it would work ‘if’ they allowed it, so we are cautiously optimistic that we will finally get approval for Sarasota to proceed within the next six months.”

So, a positive response from the Division of Elections could result in RCV being authorized for the first time in a local election in Florida.

If that authorization is not given, then there are three other options available to the group: Lobbying state legislators to pass a law specifically authorizing it; filing a lawsuit to have the courts authorize it; or working toward a state Constitutional Amendment allowing or even mandating the use of RCV in Florida elections.

Of course, a Constitutional amendment campaign would not be a near-term goal for the group, which has been around for less than a year.

As for the trends in other states, during the November general election there will be statewide RCV ballot questions in Alaska, Massachusetts and North Dakota, in addition to many local RCV ballot items in municipalities within several other states.

How does RCV differ from the “Top-Two Primaries” proposal that will be on Florida ballots as Amendment 3 this November?

Amendment 3 will do nothing to solve the problem of low-vote-share primary winners getting on the general election ballot, and given how poorly it’s polling, the voters might be looking for a better option to fix the issues we have with how our elections are run.

Looking past this year, ranked choice voting may just be that solution.

Matt Florell


One comment

  • Anthony Lorenzo

    August 25, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    Excellent idea. We need to update our voting systems from the 1700s to modern day improvements like Ranked Choice Voting. The effects of allowing more than 2 choices, reducing negative campaigning, and ensuring less votes are wasted (cast for candidates who don’t win) by ensuring majority winners when possible are completely necessary. I hope our Florida elected officials learn about this upgrade to voting and adopt this change immediately.

Comments are closed.


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