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 Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times analysis found.
Turnout was so light in Miami Dade and Broward counties, that newcomers Manny Diaz Jr., David Richardson and Rick Stark won seats to the state House in elections that had less than 3,300 total votes. 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.
Shevrin Jones, a 28-year-old Democrat from West Park and a teacher at Florida Atlantic University High School, walked into office after two challengers dropped out of the race for the newly-drawn south Broward district.
“I was surprised [at no opposition],” said Jones, who credited his activism in the community for turning away opponents.
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 and an elections expert.
Normally, fending off a challenger is a privilege earned by long-time incumbents whose would-be opponents would rather wait for them to be turned out by term limits than mount a challenge. But Jones wasn’t the only newcomer elected to the Legislature without a vote. Three others — two Republicans and one Democrat — did the same thing.
Victor Torres, Jr., a former New York City police officer, labor activist and Democrat from Orlando, was elected without opposition to the newly-drawn Hispanic influence district in the Puerto Rican voter-rich region.
Charlie Stone, a Republican and Marion County commissioner and owner of a petroleum products company, catapulted to the House without opposition, as did Travis Cummings, a Republican Clay County Commissioner and former Orange Park mayor. He filed to run for a new House district in January and never drew an opponent.
“There were lot of factors — including luck and good fortune,’’ Cummings said of his easy victory. “We didn’t choose not to be opposed. We’re going to work everyday as if we could be challenged any time.”
Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford has been in office for six years but his name has been on the ballot only twice — for the 2010 primary and 2010 general election.
He was first elected to office in 2006 when he replaced Ken Littlefield in the general election race for the Wesley Chapel 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 and oversee the House redistricting plan. 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.’’