Flor­ida headed to­ward open pri­maries?

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - By Martin Dy­ck­man

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.

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