More than a quarter of Florida voters are disenfranchised – and it’s not who you might think

By: - November 21, 2018 7:00 am
voting booth

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About 3.5 million Floridians were disenfranchised this past election –  and we’re not talking about convicted felons.

They are “No Party Affiliation” voters – people who don’t want to register as Democrat or Republican. They are Florida’s fastest growing political group – more than a quarter of the state’s registered voters.

Florida law locks them out of primary elections, including the races for key leadership roles (governor, U.S. Senate) this past August.

Because the state employs a “closed primary” system, independent and No Party Affiliation (NPA) voters are banned from participating.

Only nine other states in the country have a similar closed primary system, which  “might be the worst of all options,” says New College of Florida associate political scientist professor Frank Alcock.

Steve Hough, who heads a grassroots group called Florida Fair and Open Primaries, agrees:

“With 3.5 million independents, we could actually have an influence on who the nominees are in future election cycles,” Hough says.

Hough’s group is working to get a state Constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would allow Floridians to adopt a “top-two” system of primaries.

Under that system, any registered voter could pick their top two choices for offices like governor without having to be registered to the Democratic or Republican parties. The top two candidates who get the highest percentage of votes overall then advance to the general election – even if they are from the same party. The “top two” system is in place now in California, Washington and Nebraska.

The Phoenix has learned that there may be another organized effort in Florida besides Hough’s to push for open primaries. It  could be announced in the next few months.

One problem with Florida’s closed primary system is that candidates are pushed to be more left or more right to appeal to their political bases. This year’s gubernatorial election between right-wing Ron DeSantis and left-wing Andrew Gillum is one example.

When primaries are confined to just two parties, more centrist candidates don’t get a chance to move forward to the general election.

“We see more polarized races, more tensions, more hostility,” says Amos Miers, a Pinellas County Democrat and Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Could more voices in primaries help address that? Could open primaries give us candidates worth people’s consideration that go beyond straight party-line, down-ballot voting? I think open primaries would have a positive effect on voter participation and the quality of our elected officials.”

A poll last year by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling agency showed that 70 percent of Floridians support an open primary for all state and federal offices.

Popularity alone doesn’t mean it will get to the ballot in 2020, however.  Deep pockets are required, says Tallahassee-based political strategist Steve Vancore, who estimates that it costs a minimum of $3.5 million these days to get a measure on the ballot.

Hough acknowledges that he’s going to need a sugar daddy of sorts to get the measure on the ballot, and says he was excited to read recent comments by former Miami-based Republican fundraiser Mike Fernandez, who told the Miami Herald last month that he supports the concept of opening Florida’s primary elections.

“My efforts are already pushing the cart in that direction,” Fernandez told the Phoenix in early November when asked if he is considering funding an effort to do just that.

“As an independent voter, I am one of the almost 40 percent of the electorate in Florida who, by law, are not allowed to vote in the state’s primary,” Fernandez added in an email. “Yet, the state uses funds collected from people like me to pay for the primary election process. It’s perfectly reflective of a system of ‘taxation without representation’”

Philip Levine, the center-left former mayor of Miami Beach who finished third in the Democratic primary for governor, says he doesn’t like the way closed primaries confine candidates to certain political positions.

“If you’re running in a district which is completely blue, you can absolutely win as a progressive,” he says, referring specifically to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in a New York congressional district last June. “But if you are running in a purple environment, you better be inclusive and capture the center.”

The zeal to change the current political system is opposed by the chairs of both the Republican and Democratic parties in Florida.

Though officials with the Florida Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment, Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said last year when campaigning for the position that she didn’t think that nonparty members should determine the party’s nominees, and instead said, “We are going to encourage as many NPAs as possible to become Democrats and vote in the primary.”

On the Republican side, Christian Ziegler, a Sarasota Republican Committeeman, led the effort last year to get a resolution passed by the Republican Party of Florida that put the state party on record as opposing open primaries.  He says opening primaries to all voters “would be a disaster” and would encourage political gamesmanship.

He posits a scenario that scares him and other members of the major political parties: In his nightmare, Democrats could “flood” the Republican Party’s primary election with liberal voters to help ensure that the Republicans nominate their weakest candidate. That way, he said, Democrats would “increase their chances of victory in the general election.”

Tampa-based talk show host Dan Maduri, 33, is one voter who is in favor of opening Florida’s primaries.

He registered as a non-party-affiliated voter when he turned 18, but succumbed to re-registering with a major political party this past summer so he could participate in the primary.

“I got tired of not being able to cast a vote, so I reluctantly joined (a party),” he says.

Amos Miers, the Pinellas Democrat and Bernie Sanders delegate, said the time’s ripe for a change in Florida politics.

“With the two-party system losing members more each day to NPAs,” he asks, “how long will we allow closed primaries with fewer members of our voters making decisions on who our choices are in a general election?”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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