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Primary Elections 101

August 11, 2012

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South Florida US Congressional Districts

I’m back from a trip to Texas to close up my mother’s house (hence my posting hiatus), and since getting back I have been trying to understand the peculiarities of Florida elections and decide who to vote for in the August 14 primary election

When you move to a new place, you have to make an effort to learn things about local politics that long-time residents have absorbed by osmosis over the years.  The candidates are largely unfamiliar and you don’t know the backstory—or the dirt.

Update:  If you want to know the dirt, start with this piece from the Herald‘s political blog.

Florida went through a thorough a court-ordered redistricting process this year, which resulted in new district maps for US congress members as well for Florida state senators and representatives.  The new maps were supposed to eliminate the blatantly gerrymandered districts that had been designed to select the voters to suit the candidate, instead of the other way around.

The new maps sort of did that by making the districts more geographically compact and coherent than the bizarrely contorted districts they replaced.  They also were supposed to meet certain standards regarding racial/ethnic demographics.  Of course, this being Florida, the revised maps somehow managed to insure that virtually all of the incumbents were still resident in their new districts.  You can find the approved district maps here.

Florida has early voting, where you can cast a ballot before the election date at certain locations.  (Though the Republican-dominated state government has reduced the period for early voting, apparently believing (probably correctly) that this would hurt the Democrats.

Then there is absentee voting, which is the real voting scandal in the state.  In past elections, suspiciously lopsided absentee ballot counts have resulted in election victories by candidates who lost in the election-day ballot count.  Eye on Miami has been pursuing this scandal well before the mainstream press started paying attention to it.  Recently a few ballot collectors were arrested in Miami-Dade after being caught with bags full of ballots gleaned from retirement and nursing homes.  But these are just little fish, and no one seems particularly interested in going after the people they work for.  Instead, the state government has focused on eliminating supposedly ineligible voters from the voting lists, even though they have had great difficulty finding any and managed to impugn the voting rights of some legitimate voters.

The August vote is a primary election to select the Democratic and Republican party candidates for the general election in November, and only voters registered as a Democrat or Republican can vote in that party’s primary.  But there is also something called a “Universal Primary”.  As I understand it, this happens when one party does not contest a given elected office so that the primary election de facto determines the winner of the general election.  In that case, a 1998 state constitutional amendment mandates that all voters of whatever party will be able to vote for that office.  There are a couple of examples of this in local state representative districts.

Again, there are ways of getting around this provision, namely by having a write-in candidate enter the race, which voids the requirement of a “universal” primary.  The write-ins are often simply stalking horses for one of the candidates on the ballot, and are exempt from paying filing fees or election assessments, so the bar for entry is extremely low.    And it effectively excludes large numbers of voters from having any voice in selecting a holder of public office.  Several races in Broward and Palm Beach counties have been closed by this ruse.

The other feature of the primary elections that I find peculiar is the inclusion of judicial offices—for county and circuit judges.  I know this happens in other states too, but it’s difficult to make an informed choice on these races.  It’s not at all easy to find out anything about most of the candidates–I doubt if many people even try—and the press gives these races scant attention.  I found one article here. You’re pretty much left with taking the Herald’s endorsement into to the voting booth when the time comes to mark the ballot.

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