Movement to open Florida’s primary-election system faces test

With three letters, NPA, on his voter registration card, Steve Hough has only one way to have a say during Florida’s primary elections: Claim he’s a Republican or Democrat.

“I’ve always been an independent,” said Hough, a Panama City resident. “I can always go down to the Supervisor of Elections Office and check a box 29 days prior (to a primary), then after voting change it back. I don’t see the reason why we have to do this.”

More than 3 million Floridians did not participate in the primary elections of 2016 because they are part of the growing number of “no-party affiliation voters,” those who choose not to be associated with either of the two major parties. Where many states have opened up primary elections to voters like Hough, Florida’s remains closed.

An effort to change that passed a critical test last week and faces another Thursday.

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a body of 37 appointees that meets once every 20 years to sift through proposed changes to the state’s guiding document, has committees sorting through hundreds of proposals.

One, Proposal 62, would ask voters in November whether they would like primaries to remain closed to those registered either as Republicans or Democrats, or to open the process in a way similar to how California and the state of Washington handle primaries: All candidates appear on a primary ballot that goes before all voters, with the top two finishers — regardless of party — ending up in the general election.

Proposed by Commissioner William Schifino, a Republican from Tampa, the “top-two open primary” concept passed the Ethics and Elections Committee last week by a 6-3 margin, giving hope to backers like Hough that the concept might actually fly. But it faces another vote Thursday before the General Provisions Committee before going to the full commission later this year.

Hough, whose involvement in the open-primary movement led last year to him taking over as director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries, a grassroots group, said nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition in support of the change, while many have testified and written letters of support as the commission has held hearings and meetings for much of the past year.

April Chick, a registered Democrat from Palm Coast, moved back to Florida, her home state, after living in California for about 15 years. She’s voted under the top-two system and believes it works better because it forces candidates to appeal to a wider group of voters and flies in the face of the polarization of the two parties.

“It just engages a lot more voters in the system … ” she said. “It brings a lot more participation and more diversity and competition, which is healthy for democracy.”

Florida’s primary in 2016 produced 24 percent voter turnout. Both Washington and California saw 35 percent that year.

One of the emerging issues in Florida is the rise of the NPA. In 1995, only about 10 percent of voters in Florida were unaffiliated with either of the two major parties. In 2018, that figure has grown to nearly 27 percent statewide, while it’s an even greater share, 30 percent, in Volusia County.

Young voters are far more unlikely than their parents and grandparents to register as Democrats or Republicans.

“If this commission does not address this issue now, where will we be in 20 years? How many millions of voters will be shut out of the process?” said Glenn Burhans Jr., a Tallahassee-based elections law attorney who testified in support of the change last week.

Just nine states still have closed primaries, he said.

But there remain doubts as to whether the proposal will make it to voters in November. “I’m not holding my breath,” Burhans said.

Count Tony Ledbetter, chairman of the Volusia County Republican Executive Committee, among the skeptics.

“It’s a 1,000-percent bad idea,” Ledbetter said. “It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to the republic of the United States of America.”

Volusia County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jewel Dickson said her party simply prefers to select its own candidate.

Ledbetter added Florida’s two-party system is unlikely to change anytime soon.

“I don’t think it has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing,” he said. ”(If it does,) the Republican Party I guarantee will raise as much money as necessary to defeat it at the ballot box.”

Hough, though, argues that the proposal would allow political parties to recommend and endorse candidates before the primary, even with a notation on the ballot for voters.

“Our response is these are publicly funded primaries that lock out 3.4 million unaffiliated voters,” Hough said. But he acknowledges the proposal is “a radical change.”

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