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Re-elected with no election

The Florida election season of 1996 will be busier than most, and democracy is better served for it. But as election officials applaud the 694 candidates statewide who qualified to make this year's field one of the largest ever, the nagging image of the lone incumbent persists.

In the state House, 50 incumbents will return to office with no election, because no one filed to run against them. In the state Senate, 10 of the 21 seats up for re-election will be filled by incumbents who drew no challenge. In Pinellas County, only one of the three incumbent County Commissioners drew opposition; in fact, Robert Stewart is only the second incumbent county commissioner to be challenged in the past five elections.

For some of the most important elected officials who represent them, voters will get no choice again this year. The more forgiving interpretation is that voters, and thus potential opponents, are satisfied; and in some cases that is true. But the more realistic explanation is that incumbents have access to big money to run powerful re-election campaigns, and challengers know they face little chance against them. In Pinellas, the two County Commission incumbents who drew no opponents, Sallie Parks and Steve Seibert, had a combined $55,000 in their campaign accounts.

One clear and notable exception this year in Pinellas is the School Board. For at least the last five elections, one or more incumbents have been re-elected without opposition. This time, all three School Board incumbents _ Lee Benjamin, Susan Latvala and Andrea Thacker _ drew opponents, even in their own party.

The presence of such spirited opposition should serve as a signal not only to the incumbents but to those who are not on the ballot this time. The anger and distrust with the School Board and superintendent are real, and their attempts to dismiss educational problems as the product of bad public relations simply won't suffice.

In Hillsborough County, where a school tax referendum was soundly defeated last year, many parents and voters have expressed similar distrust with school administrators. Competitive races for three School Board seats may give voters a more positive outlet for influencing the direction of education policy in the Hillsborough system.

In their best form, elections offer voters a chance to make an informed choice between two or more capable candidates. And this year, the good fortune of some incumbents aside, Florida voters indeed will get more choices than usual. That's healthy, and may be a sign of progress. The next clue comes Sept. 3.

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