Friday, Apr 18, 2014

Check the bottom of the Nov. 6 ballot

Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:37 PM

Florida's 2012 election ballot saves the best for last.

The presidential race, a statewide contest that will help determine if Democrats keep control of the U.S. Senate, and scores of competitive campaigns for congressional, legislative and local offices are at the top of the ballot.

Those offices are certainly significant, but the people holding them come and go. No matter how strongly we feel about our favorite candidates, they will all be replaced some day.

The issues decided by referendum are far more important than the people on the ballot. They're forever – well, almost. Voters got a mulligan on high-speed rail a few years ago, mandating creation of an inter-city route with one constitutional amendment and repealing it a few years later, but the vox populii is rarely reconsidered.

This year's ballot is the longest in modern history. Fortunately, early voting and aggressive mailed-ballot efforts by both political parties will help hold down the length of lines at the polls on Nov. 6.

But it's highly likely that tens of thousands of voters, maybe hundreds of thousands, will vote in the hotly contested races – president, U.S. Senate, maybe some hard-fought city or county campaigns – and skip the ballot items that they either don't know, or don't care much about.

This year, 11 constitutional amendments, mostly junk, and three vitally important Florida Supreme Court retention issues are on the ballot. Across the state, 15 District Court of Appeal judges are also up for yes-or-no votes on their retention in office.

There are some concerted campaigns for a few of the amendments, particularly No. 4 on property taxes and No. 8 on permitting religiously affiliated organizations to receive public funding, but the amendments haven't drawn a lot of attention.

The Republican Party of Florida turned up the heat in the normally low-profile Supreme Court retention campaign by opposing all three justices. Superficially, the GOP claims the three are "activist" judges out of touch with the common folk of Florida, but the real issue is whether we want judges to consider the public popularity of their decisions. A little side bet in the Supreme Court referenda is whether Gov. Rick Scott gets to appoint replacements, if any or all of the justices are turned out.

No appeals court judge has been rejected in 34 years of retention elections. In fact, they've usually been retained by 60 percent of the vote or more. But Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente are facing a very serious political challenge this year – for what should not be a political job.

One tactical difficulty in their retention effort is the dramatic decline of voter interest for the down-ballot races.

In the last presidential election, for instance, a combined 8.4 million votes were cast for all White House contenders in Florida. But only 6.6 million people voted for or against Justice Charles Wells, who was on the ballot that year.

Well, all right, there was no serious effort to oust Wells four years ago. What about two years ago, when two of the four justices then on the ballot had a minor campaign run against them? Same thing, big falloff.

Scott and other candidates at the top of the ballot drew 5.35 million votes, compared to 4.4 million in the Supreme Court races. Even the most hard-fought constitutional amendments on the ballot that year, twin proposals establishing legal criteria for the Legislature to use in redrawing the state's congressional and legislative boundaries, were skipped by about 350,000 of the people who voted in the gubernatorial and Cabinet races.

Even a non-binding referendum on whether Congress should balance the federal budget, a meaningless feel-good straw ballot, drew about a half-million more votes than the Supreme Court retention questions.

It's too bad that ballots are like theater posters or fight cards. The big stars and heavyweight title contenders get top billing. But most years, certainly this year, the undercard is at least as important, if not more important, to the long-range future of the state.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter who worked for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at

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