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Fight over state's 2nd primary touches off "Jim Crow' debate

A fight over Florida's second primary erupted Wednesday as senators debated whether the practice is a holdover from the days of segregation, or a valuable tool of democracy.

During debate on the election reform bill, Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, offered an amendment to eliminate the second primary and give the party nominations to candidates who get the most votes.

Vote against his amendment and it was a sure sign that you support Jim Crow laws, McKay told his fellow senators.

That brought angry retorts from several Democrats who want to keep the runoff primary.

"I know better than you what a Jim Crow law would look like," said Sen. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy. "I come from a county (Gadsden) where the county clerk, the school superintendent and county commissioner (all black officials) would not be in office without a runoff."

Runoff primaries exist today in 10 states, eight of which are in the South. But runoffs still are used in some northern cities when no candidate gets at least 40 percent of the vote.

Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, sided with McKay and urged elimination of the second primary so Florida "can break with its Southern past." Hargrett is from a district drawn to allow black voters to elect a black senator.

Primaries were put in place in the late 1800s and early 1900s to replace the convention system of nominating candidates. At the same time, Southern states were establishing poll taxes and literacy tests that tended to eliminate black voters.

Runoff primaries came into being in most Southern states from 1915 to 1933, and for years took the place of general elections in most local races because so few Republicans were registered.

Most Democrats have been extremely protective of runoff elections. They point to Gov. Lawton Chiles and former Govs. Reubin Askew and Bob Graham as examples of candidates who won key races in runoffs.

Some Republicans say that's reason enough to eliminate the runoff. Democrats argue that a candidate who receives less than 40 percent of the vote in the first primary will be ill-equipped to win a general election because they are likely to lack broad support.

On the Senate floor Wednesday, some blacks favored keeping the primary and some wanted to eliminate it. Republicans also were divided. Some regard the issue as so controversial they just want to keep it separate from other election issues.

Secretary of State Sandy Mortham supports eliminating the primary, which costs about $5-million and draws few voters.

When the fight was over, the Senate rejected McKay's amendment and retained the second primary for future elections.

_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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