Florida took a big step Tuesday toward moving beyond the ignobility of the butterfly ballot and the hanging chad. The state's voters turned out in record numbers in what looked to be an orderly and transparent elections process. Outside the Tampa Bay area, voters removed a number of incumbents who looked arrogant or unethical and rewarded those whose experience looks valuable in these uncertain times.
Two Orlando-area Republican congressmen, Tom Feeney and Ric Keller, were beaten by their Democratic challengers. Feeney was linked to the disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Keller broke a personal term-limits pledge. On the East Coast, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney of Palm Beach Gardens lost his seat in the wake of an adultery scandal. By the early evening, at least, the Democrats took a net gain of a congressional seat in Florida to add to their 235-199 margin in the House.
While Democrat Barack Obama won Pinellas, the election was good for Republican incumbents throughout the county. U.S. Reps. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores and Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor coasted to re-election against underfunded, lesser known Democrats. State Rep. Peter Nehr of Tarpon Springs was seen as vulnerable because of his business troubles, but he appeared to squeak out a victory in a rematch against Democrat Carl Zimmermann. Republican incumbents all won their re-election bids in the Pinellas constitutional and County Commission races. Deborah Clark was re-elected elections supervisor despite being criticized for opening too few early voting sites. Pam Dubov was not punished in her bid for property appraiser for association with incumbent Jim Smith, who did not seek another term in the wake of a land-buying scandal. The only incumbent county commissioner seeking re-election, Karen Seel, also won. In a closely watched race for an open commission seat, outgoing School Board member and Republican Nancy Bostock defeated former St. Petersburg City Council member and Democrat Rene Flowers.
The story Tuesday was not only the outcomes but the way Florida voted. More than a third of the state's 11.2-million registered voters — about 4.2-million people — voted early or by absentee. There was a level of excitement as nearly a million new voters took part in the electoral process. Despite lines that ran hourslong in some counties, voters showed patience. Some of the most serious problems occurred, not surprisingly, in Hillsborough County, where hundreds of voters at several precincts were given only half the ballot. The elections supervisor, Buddy Johnson, flubbed another one. His also was the last county in the area to post its election results.
The heavy voter participation also made many races much more competitive. Even in races where Republican incumbents prevailed, several Democratic challengers in both Pinellas and Hillsborough made impressive runs. Hillsborough voters also appeared to reauthorize an environmental lands-buying program. Coming despite public concern over tax rates, that vote should send an especially strong message about conservation to the County Commission, which tried to gut Hillsborough's wetlands protections.