City runoff won't draw a crowd


Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 12:02 a.m.

Runoff elections, which force a second election if no candidate receives a majority, have come under fire in some communities as an expensive and unrepresentative electoral system.

In Gainesville, a runoff election will be held on Feb. 19 to determine the winner of the District 2 City Commission election.

The three candidates in District 2 split the roughly 8,500 votes so that no candidate received more than 50 percent of the votes.

Candidate Bonnie Mott came the closest with 42 percent and Lauren Poe was second with 35 percent. The third-place finisher, Bryan Harman, was eliminated from the race.

Mott and Poe now have less than three weeks to campaign for a second election that is expected to have a much lower voter turnout without a presidential primary to drive voting.

"It's going to be a different story," said Poe Tuesday night after the results were announced. "Turnout is going to be much less, and it's much more about getting your supporters to the polls."

Mott said the runoff becomes much more about getting her message out to the public.

"I'm going to sleep late in the morning and then get on with the campaign," said Mott at her post-election-day party.

This election is most comparable to the March 2000 City Commission election, which was also paired with a presidential primary in the first round. The runoff election three weeks later only had local races.

The runoff that year for the City Commission District 1seat had 1,055 fewer voters than the first election, and the at-large race lost 4,620 voters.

Both Mott and Poe said at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters that they would be in favor of an instant-runoff system.

An instant-runoff system would allow voters to rank their candidates. The first step of the election would calculate the top two candidates with regard to number one rankings. The second step would take the votes cast for the remaining candidates and distribute them among the two finalists based on voters' second choices.

That process would eliminate the need for a second, later election while still ensuring the candidate had the mandate of the public - at least 50 percent of the votes.

It is a somewhat complex system that has been endorsed by the League of Women Voters as a solution to problems in the runoff system.

Last November, the City of Sarasota passed a charter amendment that said when voting software for an instant-runoff system is available, the city will use that system.

Behind that amendment was Anthony Lorenzo, chairman of the Coalition for Instant Run Off Voting in Florida.

"With runoffs and with plurality voting, if you have more choices, you divide a voting block, which otherwise could be a majority," Lorenzo said. "What we have now is a system that resists having more choice and that absolutely needs to be addressed."

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said it may be awhile before the amendment takes effect because it relies on a change in software.

"Our vendor is Premier, and they have not even gone into any type of research and development for an instant-runoff system," said Dent, who also is the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

"And it would have to be certified with the state," she added.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both systems.

"It would be extremely difficult for the voters to learn about ranking the candidates. It's a major change of mindset for all of the voters, which would not be an easy chore," Dent said, adding that the system is used successfully in isolated areas.

"I think there are people that see the cost savings, and people that see that minority parties might have a greater say."

In 2005, the state of Florida ended the use of the runoff system in state elections, and now uses a "winner take all" system where a majority is not required.

Dent said that the change was mostly a push to cut the expense of having three elections in the span of three months.

Also, the process of turning around absentee ballots, especially for overseas and military voters, became cumbersome, Dent said.

Pam Carpenter, supervisor of elections in Alachua County, said there will definitely be a crunch to get her office turned around for the City Commission runoff.

"Today we're having to program the ballots for the city elections," Carpenter said. "And here we are on Jan. 30 and by Feb. 11, which is what 12 days, we have to have the machines tested, the ballots in house so we can test the equipment, and ballot printing companies are still in the throes of printing the ballots for all of the Super Tuesday elections."

Megan Rolland can be reached at 338-3104 or megan.rolland@ gvillesun.com.

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