Friday, February 23, 2018
Opinion

Column: Bring back Florida's second primary

Good government in Florida has become prisoner to several self-inflicted electoral wounds. The cumulative effect is a less representative democracy with too many elected officials holding narrow views and the belief that to compromise is to surrender core values. Think of the debacle of the federal government's sequester.

One self-inflicted wound, which passed with inadequate attention, is the elimination of the second primary in the selection of party candidates. From 1899 to 2001, if no party primary candidate received a majority in the first election, there was a second primary between the two top vote-getters. In 2001 and 2003, the second primary was suspended for the following year's primary elections and permanently repealed in 2005. Cancelling the second primary has resulted in candidates with high name recognition or a strong appeal to a narrow constituency becoming a party nominee with a small fraction of the first and now only primary voters.

Florida's second primary system produced some of our state's most notable and respected public servants. If not for the second primary, LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew may never have been governor, Lawton Chiles a U.S. senator, or Bob Butterworth an attorney general. They were all the runners up in the first primary but prevailed in the second. Indeed, Florida's 1978 gubernatorial race was won by a co-author of this article, who placed second in the first primary.

This is the way representative democracy should work. People choose from a field of many in an elimination round. Then, the top two vote-getters face off in the nominating round where a majority vote is required for the best candidate to move on to the final November contest. Think of it as the playoffs. In college basketball there's a season to determine the top-tier teams, then elimination rounds culminating with a final contest, the championship. But the way Florida's elections are currently constructed, there's a season and a championship but no playoffs, and zero guarantee the two contestants facing off in November represent the broadest consensus of approval within their own party.

Reinstating Florida's second primary is not difficult, and by using existing technology neither cost nor burden should become an eliminating factor. To ensure our elected leaders actually reflect our values, we simply must follow an extended timeline for holding elections, just like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and a number of other states. The Legislature could easily set the first primary, for example, in early June and the second for early September. This schedule would provide more than ample time for the electorate to process their choices.

Our view is the second primary process engages more of the electorate, makes our political parties more relevant, promotes more representative candidates, and honors majority rule, a core principle of representative democracy. It achieves these qualities by giving people more opportunity to review and evaluate candidates, and choose among those who they think will best reflect their sentiments in local government, Tallahassee or Washington.

It is no secret lawmakers from both parties have hobbled the federal government with entrenched and extreme views. Instead of leading the world as its superpower, we limp from crisis to crisis, pushing off permanent solutions in favor of temporary fixes in part because the single primary process has produced elected representatives to whom the words tolerance or reasoned compromise are an anathema.

Making candidates win a true majority will help solve this problem. It dramatically reduces the chances of fringe, unvetted and unqualified candidates sneaking by their party's electorate. Most important, it produces policymakers with views that more accurately represent the majority of people who propel them to victory. A broken election system contributes to a broken government. It's time to begin fixing things. A return of the second primary would be a good place to start.

Bob Graham, a Democrat, above left, is a former Florida state legislator, governor and U.S. senator. George LeMieux, a Republican, was chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist and is a former U.S. senator. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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