Florida's unwanted election year trends: fewer voters, unopposed candidates

Published Aug. 25, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — In an election season dominated by headlines of voter fraud, dirty tricks and enormous campaign checks, two troubling trends have gotten little attention: low voter turnout and dozens of unopposed candidates.

On Aug. 14, just two of every 10 registered voters showed up to vote in the statewide primary election. And only nine of 158 legislative primaries had more than 10 percent of voters cast a ballot, a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald analysis found.

Turnout was so light that three candidates were elected with razor-thin margins of 13, 17 and 46 votes. In many cases, no voters were even needed. That's because about one in four legislative candidates had no opposition at all.

Getting elected without opposition is not new, but it's particularly easy in Florida, where a candidate can waltz into office without even appearing on the ballot.

"Florida is one of those few states where if there is no opponent, there is no election,'' said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an elections expert.

Normally, avoiding a challenger is a privilege earned by longtime incumbents whose would-be opponents would rather wait for them to be turned out by term limits than mount a challenge. But four newcomers were elected to the Legislature without a vote.

Then there's incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has been in office for six years but has had his name on the ballot only twice — for the 2010 primary and 2010 general election.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was first elected to office in 2006 when he replaced Ken Littlefield in the general election race for the Pasco County House district. Weatherford's name wasn't on the ballot, but he won easily when the Democratic candidate's campaign was derailed by health issues. In 2008, Weatherford drew no opponent and, again this year, faces no challenger.

"I've run just about every way you can,'' said Weatherford, who as incoming House leader helped to recruit candidates for office. He doesn't blame apathy for the lack of candidate interest in running for elected office; he attributes it to "people being realistic — resources are limited.''

"We do the best we can to compete in as many seats as possible,'' Weatherford said. "But you can't force people to run."

Some political observers blame redistricting, which is carried out every 10 years to redraw maps to ensure equal representation, for suppressing candidate interest. In reality, it offers the party in power — in this case, Republicans — the chance to realign maps to favor their own candidates and cut deals with Democrats.

Redistricting took place this year under a new set of rules imposed by the Fair Districts amendments, casting a cloud of uncertainty, said Brecht Heuchan, a Tallahassee political consultant whose company, Contribution Link, compiles data on legislative races. "The lines were up in the air until late in the campaign season, which likely kept a lot of would-be candidates away."

Incumbents, as a result, had the advantage, he said.

In November, a dozen legislators face only token opposition from write-in candidates and will likely be sent to Tallahassee with barely a race. Weatherford said he believes that in time, redistricting will change that. "I do think the House map is much more competitive than it was two years ago,'' he said. "There are a lot of battleground seats and seats that could go either way. On top of that, it will become more and more competitive as time goes."

Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, concedes that in an ideal world both parties would field strong candidates for all races and voters would have a choice, but that is pragmatically impossible.

"Districts are so heavily Democratic or so heavily Republican they are not competitive, so you don't see a lot of activity on either side,'' he said.

Arceneaux believes, however, that lack of competition does suppress voter enthusiasm and "leads to a cycle of low-turnout elections."

In the U.S. Senate primary, for example, the Republicans drew 1.1 million voters in the four-way primary that nominated U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, while only 875,741 Democrats voted in the primary between incumbent Bill Nelson and his little-known opponent, Glenn A. Burkett.

The heaviest turnout in Florida elections is traditionally in smaller, more rural counties. Sparsely populated Liberty County, for example, drew 66 percent of its voters for the primary. But the sluggish results in the larger counties raise questions, especially for Democrats whose base is concentrated in large counties and will count on turnout to make a difference for the Nov. 6 general election.

Voter turnout across the state on Aug. 14 was 20 percent, higher than the 17.7 percent of 2008, but especially low in some of the most populated pockets — 10.7 percent in Broward, 13.7 percent in Palm Beach, 20 percent in Miami-Dade, 16.6 percent in Pasco and 15.7 percent in Osceola.

Deirdre MacNab, director of the Florida League of Women Voters, believes that the absence of competition in many Florida legislative races, and the low voter participation, opens opportunities for special interests to fill the void in Tallahassee.

Legislative lobbyists not only write campaign checks, they recruit candidates, walk districts, finance television ads and direct mail pieces, and develop relationships they hope to draw on when it comes time for lawmakers to carry a bill or take a key vote.

"The deck is stacked," she said. "Any deep-pocket corporate organization can give unlimited amounts. It's an extraordinary David and Goliath effect."

While Florida is among the states with the lowest primary turnout rates, it is a growing trend across the country. "We've seen an erosion of awareness of who incumbents are and an increase in elections with very little competition," said McDonald of George Mason University. But, he adds, there are also easy answers.

"Really, the responsibility is on people," he said. "You've got to go out and vote and be informed on the issues. If turnout would increase in these elections, candidates would adjust accordingly."