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Runoff faces uncertain future

Without a runoff election, Bob Graham would not have been elected governor in 1978. Reubin Askew, LeRoy Collins, and Lawton Chiles might well have become obscure footnotes in Florida's political history.

All of them finished second in their Democratic primaries before winning runoff elections that propelled them into legendary careers.

State lawmakers, having last year tested an election with no second primary, now must decide whether runoff elections should be restored or killed outright.

Their decision could well affect upcoming races for U.S. Senate and governor.

Florida elections supervisors hope the runoff system doesn't return.

"It's a time bomb waiting to happen," Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said.

It's a time problem, Browning explained. Primaries are held in September. Runoffs are held a month later, with the general election a month after that.

"If they don't at least give us more time, it'll be more than Miami-Dade and Broward counties having problems in '04," Browning said, referring to seriously troubled Democratic primaries in those counties last year. "In my opinion it will be all 67 counties."

Runoffs in state elections are required when no primary candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Only 10 states have such a system. Changes in Tallahassee would not affect local runoff elections.

Supporters say runoffs produce candidates with broader appeal, rather than simply the best-known candidate or the one who most excites the most hardcore party loyalists. That makes the runoff especially relevant in crowded primaries, which appears especially likely in the 2006 governor's race.

The Republican-controlled Legislature suspended the runoff for the 2002 election. The move was widely seen as a way to get Democrats to nominate a liberal nominee to challenge Gov. Jeb Bush. If so, it didn't work: Bill McBride upset the more liberal Janet Reno in the primary but still lost handily to Bush.

In December, an elections task force appointed by the governor recommended abolishing the runoff altogether. But after Republican lawmakers and other task force members huddled over the matter, the committee took another vote and recommended suspending the runoff in 2004, but leaving the door open for its resumption in 2006.

For years, elections officials have asked lawmakers to repeal the second primary, saying it's expensive, produces scant voter turnout and makes for an administrative headache. With increasing requirements put on elections officials and the need to send ballots overseas, they say the second primary has become a logistical nightmare.

If it's not repealed, they want at least 10 weeks between the primary and runoff and 10 weeks between the runoff and general election. That would push the primary to summertime.

"That's a terrible time to have an election," said former Secretary of State Jim Smith, who would rather see the runoff abolished. "When the state was really a one-party state, the runoff was important because they really decided the election, but that's not the case anymore."

The runoff returns in 2004 if lawmakers take no action, and for now there is no consensus.

Gov. Jeb Bush said he's ambivalent about the runoff. But if it's not repealed, the primary date must be moved to give elections officials more time, he said.

Senate President Jim King is inclined to eliminate the runoff for 2004, study the question further and then review it in 2006.

State House Speaker Johnnie Byrd is adamant about keeping the runoff. He might not be in office today were it not for the runoff system. He placed second behind Ronda Storms in the 1996 Republican primary for his state House seat. He won the runoff and then the general election.

"I'm a big believer in the runoff," said Byrd, whose own statewide political ambitious could be affected by the runoff decision. "I don't want it ever to be said that I deleted an opportunity for people to get to the polls."

King said he's intrigued by the idea of an "instant primary," where voters select their first, second and third choices. When no candidate gets a majority, the second choice votes would be tallied until a candidate receives a majority. He has heard little interest in that from colleagues, however.

_ Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or