Stung by low turnout, Democrats eye shifting Fla.’s statewide election schedule

After yet another defeat blamed on low voter turnout, some Florida Democrats want to change the rules and elect the governor in the same year voters pick the president — when turnout is always much higher.

In the aftermath of Charlie Crist’s narrow loss to Gov. Rick Scott, strategists are plotting how to put an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would shift statewide races back to presidential years, as they were in Florida until 1964.

“Our state leaders should be elected by the greatest number of people,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami strategist who worked on the medical marijuana campaign. “How can you argue that having fewer people participate in the political process is good for the state?”

Crist advisor Kevin Cate wrote an opinion column in favor of shifting statewide elections that got picked up by a liberal blog, The Daily Kos. It launched an online petition that argues: “More Floridians deserve to have their voice heard.” Backers have sought legal guidance from Jon Mills, dean of the University of Florida law school and a former House speaker, who also worked on the medical pot campaign.

The 2014 election was the first Florida midterm in which 6 million people cast ballots, but that figure pales in comparison to the 8.5 million who voted in the 2012 presidential election in Florida.

For Democrats, the call for change is an admission that they can no longer compete with Republicans in statewide races for governor and three down-ballot, powerful Cabinet seats.

The midterm electorate is older, whiter and smaller, which favors Republicans. A presidential electorate is younger, more diverse and larger, which favors Democrats.

Ending statewide midterms might solve the Democrats’ turnout problem, but it would require changing the state Constitution, a costly and difficult undertaking that would invite opposition from Republicans, who thrive in the current system.

“What’s wrong with it?” asked former Sen. John Thrasher, who once ran the state Republican Party and is now president of Florida State University. “I think our voters have gotten used to it the way it is, and they like it that way.”

If future state elections are held the same year as elections for president, Thrasher said, voters will pay less attention to races for governor because they would be overshadowed by presidential candidates — especially as its 29 electoral votes make Florida the most sought-after swing state in presidential politics.

The notion that Democrats want to change the voting calendar is rich with irony, because it was Democrats who created the current system. They worried that a quietly emerging Republican Party would eventually take control — and it did.

The state was overwhelmingly Democratic in the 1950s, but voters flocked to Republican Dwight Eisenhower twice.

In 1960, Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat John F. Kennedy in Florida. On that same ballot, an obscure Republican candidate for governor, George Petersen of Fort Lauderdale, got a shocking 40 percent of the vote against Democrat Farris Bryant, and the handwriting was on the wall.

“The fear was that the Republican Party would make inroads in state and local offices if a change was not made,” wrote the late Fred Karl, who joined the Legislature in 1957, in his book about Florida politics The 57 Club.

A band of rural, upstate Democrats known as the “pork choppers” still controlled the Legislature then, and in a special statewide election in 1963, voters changed the Constitution and moved elections for governor to even-numbered years that are “not a multiple of four” starting in 1966.

From 1964 to 1966, Democrat Haydon Burns held a two-year term as governor to start the new midterm calendar.

Since then, voting in Florida has followed a boom-and-bust cycle: Millions more people vote in presidential years than in mid-term elections for governor and the three statewide Cabinet offices.

During that time, Republicans became dominant in state politics, but the Republican presidential candidates in Florida have looked weaker.

Beginning in 1980, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush each won Florida twice, but Bill Clinton won for the Democrats in 1996 and Al Gore famously lost the 2000 recount by 537 votes.

After George W. Bush won in 2004, Barack Obama won the following two elections, both times with impressive get-out-the-vote efforts that Democrats could not duplicate in the 2014 midterm.

Some Democrats say tinkering with the election timetable is a terrible idea.

“Damn it, nobody’s keeping us away from the polls except ourselves,” said Talbot (Sandy) D’Alemberte, a former Democratic legislator from Miami.

State Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said Democrats will look bad if they try to game the system, and he doubts the idea could gain the approval of 60 percent of voters needed to change the Constitution.

“The Republican Party will run an effective campaign to make sure it doesn’t,” Clemens said. “It also drains resources away from other Democratic causes.”

Getting an initiative on the 2016 ballot would require collecting valid signatures of 683,000 voters at a cost estimated at more than $3 million.

“The X factor is whether there’s the will from donors and political groups,” Pollara said. “But our state leaders should be elected by an electorate that looks like Florida.”

Tampa Bay Times researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.