Democrats who controlled the state legislature were worried that holding their gubernatorial elections in presidential years, when more Republican voters showed up at the polls, threatened their solid grip on state politics.
So a group of rural segregationist Democrats called a special statewide election to change the year in which Florida elected its governors. Voters approved the change, shifting gubernatorial elections to midterm years, rather than presidential years.
Fast forward half a century, and the political calculus has changed: Now it’s Democratic voters who are more likely to turn up in a presidential year. Democrats have won Florida’s electoral votes in three of the last six presidential elections, but they find themselves in the midst of an historic gubernatorial losing streak.
Republicans have won five straight elections; Lawton Chiles was the last Democrat to win the governorship, in 1994.
Now, Democrats want to return to the old system. Party strategists are planning to collect signatures for a ballot initiative in 2016 that would shift governor’s races back to presidential election years.
“Our state leaders should be elected by the greatest number of people,” Ben Pollara, a Democratic strategist involved in the effort told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, which first reported the campaign. “How can you argue that having fewer people participate in the political process is good for the state?”
Kevin Cate, the longtime Florida Democratic strategist, initially floated the idea of moving the election in an op-ed published a few weeks after Gov. Rick Scott (R) beat his candidate, Charlie Crist (D), in November.
Turnout in midterm elections routinely clocks in more than 10 points lower than presidential elections. Since 1996, presidential election turnout has topped 60 percent every year, while midterm turnout has hovered between 47 percent and 55 percent. Minorities and younger voters, two key pillars of the modern Democratic coalition, are far less likely to show up in midterm years.
(Of course, no one is preventing voters who decide not to participate in midterms from heading to the polls, and Democrats spent almost $20 million trying to get voters to the polls this year.)
But Democrats face a big hurdle in changing the state constitution. Florida law requires constitutional amendments to receive 60 percent of the vote to pass; even a medical marijuana initiative, which at one point enjoyed the support of more than 80 percent of voters in early polls, ultimately fell short of the 60 percent requirement.
And Republicans, once the target of the Democratic shenanigans, now have reason to stand by the current system. The last five elections have gone to Republicans Jeb Bush, Charlie Crist (a Republican when he was elected in 2006) and Rick Scott. The last time three Republicans won the governor’s mansion consecutively came between 1868 and 1874, in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Then again, the Democratic move to change the year in which gubernatorial elections were held didn’t exactly work in the first place: In 1966, the first year Florida held its governor’s race in the off year, Republican Claude Kirk bested Miami Mayor Robert High (D) to become the first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Florida’s history should be a lesson to lawmakers on both sides seeking to change election laws to favor their candidates: Political tides change, and unintended consequences are almost certain to play havoc with even the best-laid plans.