Florida headed toward open primaries?
When the Constitution Revision Commission made a pretense of listening to the public at hearings around the state, one of the two most popular issues was reform of Florida’s closed primary system. But the only such proposal that made it out of the committee process—to junk the infamous write-in loophole—was put to death in final debate last spring.
The major parties have no intention of yielding their shared monopoly over Florida’s essentially dysfunctional government, and they don’t care who knows it.
But one area of politics lies safely beyond their control: the initiative process—the power of the people to amend the constitution by petition and referendum. The people used it this year to restore the right to vote to some
1.4 million potential voters who suffered the onus of old criminal convictions. That had been the most popular issue at the commission’s hearings, but its proponents wisely didn’t count on the politicians to put it on the ballot.
The next challenge—and it’s good news that some people are rising to meet it—is to make the vote fully meaningful for the 3.6 million registered voters who don’t want to associate with any of Florida’s major or minor parties. They’re Florida’s third largest and fastest growing constituency.
A committee called Florida Fair and Open primaries registered with the state last May, not long after the revision commission thumbed its noses at those
3.6 million voters. It has national connections but no money so far. It is soliciting signatures for two petitions:
One proposes a completely open “top two” primary like California’s in which the two highest vote-getters go on to the general election regardless of party. It would not apply to presidential primaries. This idea made it through one of the revision commission’s committees last spring but was killed in another.
he other would bar the use of any public money, property or equipment for party primaries, including those for president— from which independent voters are excluded.
The committee’s website is www.floridafairandopenprimaries.org It’s worth a good look.
There’s another reform we’d like to see presented to Florida voters—ranked-choice voting, sometimes known as instant runoff. Maine put it into effect this year, the first state to do so, for federal elections. An incumbent Congressman, Republican Bruce Poliquin, led narrowly in the first returns but didn’t have a majority because two independents had diverted 8 percent of the vote. The state then counted the second-choice votes that their supporters had marked, giving a narrow victory to Democrat Jared Golden.
Maine’s reform was the product of a referendum after 9 of the previous 11 governors were elected without a majority.
Florida’s next governor, Ron DeSantis, didn’t have a majority, either, on Nov. 6. He polled 49.59 percent, just 32,463 votes ahead of Democrat Andrew Gillum. More than three times as many people voted for minor party candidates. It’s fascinating conjecture to ask how those 101,772 voters who chose neither DeSantis nor Gillum would have awarded their second-choice votes had there been the opportunity.
Steve Hough, who heads the Florida Fair and Open Primaries campaign, says ranked-choice voting would be too hard a sell in a state so much larger than Maine, and he’s probably right.
But the open primaries he does propose might have made a difference in this year’s gubernatorial race.
Gillum began the fall campaign with a certain disadvantage that went virtually unnoticed. He had won the Democratic primary with only 34.4 percent of the vote to 31.3 percent for runner-up Gwen Graham. DeSantis had the benefit of a clear majority in his primary. He didn’t have to mend too many fences.
There’s no way to know, of course, how independents—or ranked-choice voting--might have altered the Democratic Party’s primary results or those of the GOP. It’s a shame, though, that they had no voice in either. In North Carolina, by contrast, voters who do not register in any of the state’s five recognized parties can choose any party’s primary ballot.
Twenty years ago, the previous Constitution Revision Commission recognized the anti-democratic nature of Florida’s closed primary system. It called for an open primary whenever there would be no November opposition to the party’s nominee—a situation in which the primary is actually the election. Voters approved it handily, but the Division of Elections sabotaged it with a ruling that the existence of a write-in candidate would close the primary. Both parties quickly perfected the art of putting up clueless and hopeless write-in candidates whose purposes are not to win but simply to close the primaries. The revision commission was expected to do away with the scam this year, but came up three votes short of the
22-vote super-majority it needed for any final action.
There is no mention of political parties in the U.S. Constitution and they are afterthoughts in Florida’s, most importantly in the
2010 initiatives that forbid any gerrymandering to favor one party over another. The Founders had a naïve belief that parties weren’t necessary and when George Washington saw them evolving, he warned against them.
Today’s major parties argue that what goes on in their primaries is no one else’s business and that independents who want a stronger voice should simply join them. That sort of arrogance has no proper place in a democracy, though it’s certainly common enough.
But history tells us that such abuses of power bear the seeds of their own destruction. We hope to see open primaries on the 2020 ballot. Citizens who agree can do their part by going to that website, downloading and printing the petitions, and signing them and mailing them in.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
Columnist Martin Dyckman asserts that the growing population of independent voters could give rise to open primaries in Florida. The issue failed to gain traction during the Constitution Revision Commission process.