FL independent voters on the rise, pushing to overhaul a century-old primary election system

By: - December 3, 2019 7:00 am

Voting booths are set up on the campus of University of South Florida as workers prepare to open the doors to early voters on October 22, 2018, in Tampa. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

In a rare display of unity, Republicans and Democrats will be in a courtroom today arguing against a proposed state constitutional amendment that would change the way Florida elects governors, state Cabinet members and state lawmakers.

Lawyers for the two parties will appear before the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday in joint opposition to an amendment that would eliminate the state’s “closed” primary election system, which restricts the voting to members of each major party.

In its place, a group called “All Voters Vote” wants to have an “open” primary — or “jungle primary” — where all voters could participate, with the top two vote-getters in each primary advancing to the general election.

The All Voters group is led by Mike Fernandez, a wealthy health-care executive from Miami-Dade County. Fernandez is a former Republican who became an independent because of his opposition to President Donald Trump.

The Florida Supreme Court. Photo by
Colin Hackley.

Today’s arguments before the state Supreme Court have taken on even greater importance for the All Voters Vote campaign.

State election records show the group has now collected enough validated voter signatures — 767,503 — to secure a place on the November 2020 ballot. It has exceeded the 766,200 signature requirement.

With that barrier eliminated, only a negative opinion from the state Supreme Court will prevent the proposal from reaching voters next year.

Once on the ballot, the initiative must win support from at least 60 percent of the general election voters next year to be enacted.

“All Voters Vote was founded by a group of like-minded Florida registered voters who are dissatisfied with the political rhetoric from the extreme wings of both major political parties and the divisiveness it has caused our society,” the group said in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. “That divisiveness is causing voters to reject membership in the two major political parties at startling rates.”

State election data confirms that trend.

Just before the historic 2000 general election in Florida, only 15 percent of the state’s voters registered as independents, defined as voters with “no party affiliation.” More than eight out of every 10 voters belonged to a major party, with 43 percent registered as Democrats and 39 percent as Republicans.

Nineteen years later, more than one out of every four of Florida’s 13.5 million voters is now registered as an independent. Voters belonging to the two major parties have shrunk from 82 percent in 2000 to 72 percent as of Sept. 30, the data shows.

Fernandez and the other All Voters supporters say that growing number of independent voters pay a “steep” price because they “are barred – as a matter of law — from participating in Florida’s closed party primaries.”

“As more voters reject membership in either major party, the membership in the major parties continues to shrink relative to the registered voter population,” the group’s brief said. “As a result, an increasing number of voters cannot participate in primary elections — allowing a shrinking share of the electorate to determine which candidates will appear on the general election ballot.”

California, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington are the four states now using a “top-two” primary format, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Advocates of the top-two format argue that it increases the likelihood of moderate candidates advancing to the general election ballot. Opponents maintain that it reduces voter choice by making it possible that two candidates of the same party face off in the general election,” the NCSL said.

“(Opponents) also contend that it is tilted against minor parties who will face slim odds of earning one of only two spots on the general election ballot,” the NCSL said.

The opponents in Florida include the Democratic and Republican parties as well as Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.

But at stake in Tuesday’s hearing before Florida’ highest court are not the merits of the proposed constitutional amendment, which ultimately will be decided by voters if the measure reaches the November 2020 general election ballot.

Instead the opponents will be arguing that the proposed amendment violates the “single-subject” requirement for citizens’ initiatives and that the ballot language is misleading.

“The proposed amendment should be denied ballot placement because its corresponding ballot title and summary fail to disclose the amendment’s chief purpose and would affirmatively mislead voters as to its true legal effect,” Moody said in a legal brief filed by her office. “The amendment would do away with ‘primary election’ as Florida voters know and understand them, replacing the current system with a ‘top-two’ format.”

Florida two major political parties are raising similar arguments.

“Without clearly and unambiguously informing voters, the proposed amendment changes a century-old primary election system. For the first time since at least 1913, primary voters would not choose a political party’s nominee for the general election,” the Florida Democratic Party said in a brief.

Democrats say while the measure would still allow the political parties to create a nomination process for their candidates, it would eliminate the current use of the primaries as the party-nomination method.

“Thus, the political party nomination process becomes illusory,” the Democrats said.

In its brief, the Florida Republicans say the proposed constitutional amendment “redefines the nature of a ‘primary election’ in Florida, but conceals that effect by using familiar terms in unfamiliar ways.”

“By using language that describes the existing partisan primary process — ‘primary’ and ‘party nominated’ — to describe the dismantling of that same process, the ballot title and summary are unclear, ambiguous, and misleading in violation of Florida law,” the GOP said.

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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.