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pinion Guest Op/Ed: Florida Students Learn About "Representative Democracy" the Hard Way


On February 17th, the Orlando Sentinel's Aaron Deslatte noted the connection between Tallahassee's $127 million lobbying industry and the policy returns such investments yield for their moneyed interests. However, most voters cannot afford the resources necessary to effect the policymaking process in such a manner. The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform (FLIER) urges a closer look at just how unrepresentative and ultimately undemocratic this makes Florida's political system.

Like most people, Florida's college and university students are a constituency that has nearly no role and few resources, if any, invested in lobbying and campaign finance. As a result, they are finding out the hard way about how little "representative democracy" they have in Florida's two-party plutocracy.

As the Florida Legislature's 2012 regular session ends, students have seen legislators reject their calls to repeal unnecessary barriers to voting (HB 1355), tinker with their power to elect their lone representative on the Board of Governors (HJR 931), and completely ignore their concerns about making University of South Florida Polytechnic an independent university (SB 1994). Yet, on paper Florida is a representative democracy, albeit one without a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. "It's pay to play politics and students simply cannot pay, nor should they have to. If students engaged in big money lobbying and campaign contributions, some of these bills would not even have been considered," said Michael Long, chairman of the Florida Student Association.

The example regarding USF Polytechnic is particularly illustrative of the lack of representation for those who cannot play the money game. Surveys showed that the faculty and students of that campus were unequivocally opposed to the idea of their campus becoming Florida's 12th, and as yet unaccredited, university. The views of those most impacted by the proposal went unheard as the bill (SB 1994) sailed through the Florida Senate, with large bipartisan support, for one uniquely powerful legislator's project to become law. No legislators even bothered trying to explain to the non-moneyed constituency (students) of that campus how the proposal is in everyone's best interests.

Florida's monolithic two-party system and winner-take-all dynamics, driven by large private money and a 97.5% incumbent re-election rate, do not offer much incentive for justifying murky policy making. Instead it creates penalties for those seeking to legislate in the public interest or debate the merits of legislation based on such standards. As has been observed in the case of the USF Polytechnic students, those who cannot marshal the resources necessary to get the policy returns they need wind up with no representation from either party.

FLIER believes that such institutional dysfunction will continue until such time as comprehensive reforms are made to Florida's electoral system. These reforms must be centered on developing a vibrant democracy with accessibility for the average person, a competitive political environment, and pluralism in policy and decision making. Only then can a functioning representative democracy be built in Florida.

The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform is a non-partisan coalition of groups and individuals recognizing the need for electoral reforms to enrich and expand democracy in our state and its localities. In addition to advocacy, we seek to provide education on electoral reform and the policy solutions necessary to realize it. We are working towards a vibrant democracy with accessibility for the average person, a competitive political environment, and pluralism in policy and decision making. For more information please visit http://www.floridaelectoralreform.org or e-mail info@floridaelectoralreform.org.


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