Florida Politics

How many votes does it take to elect a Florida legislator?

Sometimes you don’t have to get a single vote to be elected as a Florida legislator and sent to the Capitol.
Sometimes you don’t have to get a single vote to be elected as a Florida legislator and sent to the Capitol. Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE When Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee for another redistricting special session on Oct. 19, they will talk a lot about how to comply with court guidelines when redrawing state Senate districts. But they’ll say much less about how competitive those district should be.

In 2012, lawmakers redrew the House and Senate maps to adjust for population changes in the decennial census and to comply with new anti-gerrymandering amendments to the state Constitution. And they achieved a stunning result: A third of all legislators were elected in their last election without a single vote. They got here by default because no one ran against them.

Removing the partisan barriers to competitive districts was the goal of the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution, which voters approved by a 63 percent majority in 2010. Although the new rules don’t require that districts be competitive, the amendments prohibit lawmakers from drawing lines that intentionally attempt to benefit incumbents or political parties.

The Florida Supreme Court invalidated the congressional map drawn by the GOP-controlled House and Senate in July, concluding that lawmakers had allowed political operatives to improperly “infiltrate” the process to benefit incumbents or partisans. The Florida Senate concluded the court would have invalidated its map, too, so it volunteered to settle the lawsuit challenging it and hold a special session. The House reluctantly agreed.

Republican leaders will consider the upcoming special session to redraw the Senate map a success if they do little harm to the Republican majority. Democrats will feel successful if the new map pits GOP incumbents against each other and creates two or more districts that give their candidates the advantage. Both sides will remain in limbo if this session dissolves, like the one in August, in disarray.

3 legislators, all senators including Democrat Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, were elected by a true majority of their district’s voters.

Why is this important? Legislators wield tremendous power in Florida — from crafting the state’s annual budget and determining how much taxes people pay to deciding whether to implement environmental preservation measures spelled out in Amendment 1.

Drawing the political boundaries for the next decade through redistricting is like creating the rulebook for who calls the shots.

With that as the backdrop, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times examined how many votes each legislator received in their last election, and assessed the intensity of competition and voter support for all 160 of them.

Here are some of the stats:

▪ There were 11.9 million registered voters for the 2014 general election but only 2.8 million cast votes for a senator in the last applicable election, and only 2.2 million voted for a House member.

▪ The Senate has 40 members: 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats, each of whom runs every four years. The House of Representatives has 120 members: 81 Republicans and 39 Democrats, and each holds a two-year term. There are no legislators registered from other parties or without a party affiliation.

▪ Of the 40 Senators, 12 were elected without opposition; of the 120 House members, 38 similarly walked into office without a vote.

▪ While 31 percent of all legislators were elected without a general or primary challenge, another 52 — or 32 percent — were elected with support from less than 30 percent of the voters in their district casting a ballot last cycle.

▪ Fourteen legislators — 9 Republicans, 5 Democrats — were elected after either a close primary or competitive general election battle, where they won the contest with less than 53 percent of the vote on Election Day. They were Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach and Reps. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens; Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora; Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie; Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando; Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami; Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill; Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs; Mike Miller, R-Winter Park; Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor; Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach; Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa; Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach; and Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

How intense was voter support?

In the Senate, 19 senators — almost half the chamber — were elected with fewer than 30 percent of their voters’ support, including those who had no votes cast for them because they were unchallenged. And just three senators can say they were elected by a true majority of their district’s voters. Sens. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee; Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale; and Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, were elected with support from more than 50 percent of registered voters in their district.

Eight had nominal opposition from third-party or write-in candidates. They were Gaetz, Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs; Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon; and Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater; Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth; Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens; and Darren Soto, D-Orlando. Another three senators had no general election competition, but faced a primary challenger.— Sens. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge; John Legg, R-Trinity; and Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

In the House, 83 lawmakers — or 69 percent of the chamber — were voted in with fewer than 30 percent of their district’s voters, including those who had no opponents. Seven representatives, 5.8 percent, had no general election competition but faced a primary challenger — Watson, Sullivan and Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee; Tom Goodson, R-Titusville; Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers; Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach; and Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale.

There were 57 truly competitive House races, in which lawmakers faced a fight from either within their party during the primary or from the opposing party in the general election. Another 21 members, including Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the House redistricting chairman, had nominal opposition from third-party or write-in candidates.

In the House, however, no one drew a true majority of their district’s potential voters. Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, was closest, receiving support from 43 percent of the registered voters in his district.

The reasons for the modest voter support ranges from low voter turnout to lack of competition. The legislature’s eight-year term limits, and the absence of competitive districts as a result of redistricting, reduce the number of opponents willing to take on a sitting legislator.

Low voter turnout doesn’t diminish the legislature’s power, but it does allow it to be concentrated in the hands of a few. Some of the most powerful members of both chambers were elected to office with no votes, often after amassing substantial fundraising money to fend off challengers. Their campaigns focused on raising money, often from powerful interests groups trying to influence the legislative agenda, but it didn’t include asking for ordinary people’s votes — because they didn’t have to.

In the House, those who had no competition include Appropriations Chair and Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes; Rules Committee Chair Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne; Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa; and Democratic Leader-designate Janet Cruz of Tampa.

In the Senate, the list of 12 walk-ins includes Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa; Redistricting Chair Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton; and Fiscal Policy Chair Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

On Monday, legislators return to Tallahassee for their annual fall committee hearings to decide which issues and whose agenda will get their attention when the 2016 session begins in January. They will plot strategies for acquiring coveted leadership spots. And they will host fundraisers, to collect contributions from special interests to finance their political committees — with the hopes that they, too, can be elected next time without a vote.