TALLAHASSEE - More than 1.1 million Florida voters won't have a representative in one of the legislative chambers when the 2018 session begins next month.
Resignations and a recent death have created six open seats, with most expected to remain vacant through the 60-day session because of scheduling requirements for special elections.
The vacancies do little to alter the Republican hold on both chambers, with the GOP up 23-15 in the Senate and 76-40 in the House entering the 2018 session.
But a vacancy can mean additional work for other lawmakers.
More importantly, Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida, said people in districts short of full representation could struggle to see local needs and funding advanced.
“Some districts have certain issues that are important which may not be pursued at all or pursued with the same vigor,” Jewett said. “Every district may have specific issues or projects that they would like funded. In the absence of representation, it is likely they will not get their share of the appropriations pie."
“The system is set up so that most members primarily listen to and try to help their own constituents --- under normal circumstances it is considered bad form to work with a constituent who does not live in your district,” Jewett added. “Some years ago, when I was in college, I interned with my state representative. One of the first things that I was taught when being contacted by someone was to get their address and find out if they lived in the district or not. If they did not, I was directed to steer them towards their appropriate elected official.”
However, he noted that district staff members usually remain in place until new lawmakers are seated, which helps with some constituent services.
Jewett also said a lawmaker leaving unexpectedly could affect bills that the lawmaker sponsored or planned to champion.
“If no other member has the passion for one of these issues, then it is likely that the policies will not have an advocate and will have a harder time becoming law or being funded,” Jewett said.
As an example, former Rep. Alex Miller, a Sarasota Republican, resigned in August, pointing to family and work obligations as well as House leadership issues. She had earlier announced plans to pursue new state wildlife laws after videos surfaced of people abusing sharks. Since Miller's departure, no one has picked up issue.
As another example, Rep. Don Hahnfeldt, a Republican from The Villages who died of cancer Sunday, backed five local projects, including proposals that would provide money to Lake-Sumter State College and make improvements to County Road 466A, which runs through The Villages.
Having co-sponsors could help keep proposals moving after the departure of lawmakers.
Hahnfeldt, for instance, was sponsoring a bill (HB 1029) that calls for raising the legal age for smoking from 18 to 21. Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill, intends to move forward with the proposal.
“I was honored to have worked with him on raising the tobacco purchase age to 21 and will pursue this important issue in his legacy,” Berman tweeted on Tuesday. Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, also is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill.
Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said the vacancies highlight the importance of coalition building.
“It is never optimal in a representative democracy for vacancies during a legislative session,” MacManus said in an email. “But constituents missing a representative or senator have little choice other than to turn to others who share(d) his, her interests whether via a political party or committee assignment or interest group.”
With legislative seats vacant for months after the exits of lawmakers, MacManus said it is important for voters to understand the necessity of special-election timelines. That includes providing time for overseas voters to receive and cast ballots.
“Too many voters see this as an intentional delay rather than as mandated protection of overseas voters' right to vote,” MacManus said.
Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson this month rejected arguments by Florida Democratic Party leaders that special elections in two legislative districts should be held more quickly so the seats could be filled for at least part of the legislative session.
Dodson described as “unfortunate” the timing of the resignations of former Sen. Jeff Clemens in Palm Beach County's Senate District 31 and former Rep. Daisy Baez in Miami-Dade County's House District 114. But he said moving up special election dates set by Gov. Rick Scott could lead to an argument that shorter windows for absentee voting would prevent people from casting ballots.
“I wish I could do something,” Dodson said as he ruled against the party's request. “But there really isn't time to do it.”
State law requires 45 days for absentee voting before special and general elections. The party argued the requirement shouldn't apply to special elections.