Martin Dyckman: Gerrymandering, campaign money killing Florida elections

Politicians have been known to crack jokes about elections that lacked for any candidates. That’s extremely rare, but it has happened.

The likelier event is an election without voters, and there’s nothing funny about it.

When qualifying for state offices closed in Florida last week, more than a third of the candidates for the Legislature — nine out of 20 running for the Senate and 41 of 120 in the House — escaped without opposition on the ballot. All but one are incumbents.

They’re automatically elected except for one senator and three House incumbents who will need to dispose of write-in opponents — a formality, since write-ins by definition don’t appear on the ballot and never win.

The lack of choice for voters is worse than even those figures make it seem.

Of the 90 seats still in play, only 57 pit the majority Republicans against the minority Democrats. Most of these races will be one-sided.

The rest are contested only in party primaries or by Libertarians and candidates who qualified independently.

Among the 19 party primaries that will be decisive, only five will be open to all voters. Write-in filings closed the rest.

It means that in November, more than half the voters will be either without any choice or limited to casting a protest vote for a candidate with little or no prospect of winning.

This is a shameful failure of the two-party system. In a flourishing democracy, with 160 offices on the ballot, every one should be hard-fought.

This death by degrees owes to two plagues that the founders of our republic did not foresee:

— Voting districts gerrymandered to favor one party or the other. This puts the real action into the primaries, where neither party’s moderates do well.

— Unrestricted campaign spending that in most cases favors incumbents and the party in power.

There’s a movement in Florida to scrap the party primaries with open primaries in which the top two candidates would advance to the general election even if both are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians or whatever. The failure of competition this year will encourage those who support that.

But it bears remembering the adage that solutions cause problems. Assume, for example, a heavily Democratic district in which a dozen Democrats and only two Republicans run. If the dozen splinter the Democratic vote and the two split the Republican vote evenly, they go on to November and the Democrats are left wondering what happened.

This happened recently in California.

In 1991, Louisiana’s “jungle” primary notoriously gave the voters a choice between the Nazi David Duke and the notoriously corrupt former Gov. Edwin Edwards. Bumper stickers pleaded, “Elect the crook. It’s important.”

Edwards went back to the governor’s mansion and eventually to federal prison.

The upside to our hypothetical open Florida primary is that the Democratic voters might favor the more moderate Republican. But what if neither is?

Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission put a modified open primary system on the ballot in 1998 and the voters approved it. It provides that everyone can vote when “all candidates for an office have the same party affiliation and the winner will have no opposition in the general election….”

But this was promptly sabotaged by a Department of State ruling recognizing write-ins as opposition.  The plain intent of the Revision Commission was flouted.

Ever since, write-ins have appeared to keep most party primaries “pure.”

Florida’s next Constitution Revision Commission, which is to be appointed in 2017, could fix this. It could also propose broader reforms, such as a nonpartisan redistricting process. Iowa has one, and it rarely results in free passes for incumbents.

Another worthy reform would be multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting. In effect, that would be proportional representation. And, like even-handed redistricting, it would make for a more moderate Legislature regardless of which party is in control.

I keep writing about that revision commission because whether it’s a success or a dud will depend on this year’s elections.

The Constitution prescribes 37 members. The governor appoints 15, including the chair. The House speaker and Senate president each name nine. The attorney general serves ex-officio. The chief justice selects the final three, with the “advice” — it doesn’t say “consent” — of the Supreme Court.

A shared purpose among the governor, attorney general and chief justice could — for example — protect the judiciary from legislators who are determined to bend it to their will. They could appoint a commission that would invigorate the election process.

Or they could make things even worse.

That’s something to think about when you’re deciding for whom to vote.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

Martin Dyckman

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