Should all voters participate in the primaries regardless of political parties?

By: - October 2, 2020 7:00 am

NextGen America organizers register students to vote on Florida State University’s campus in the days leading up to the 2018 primary elections. A proposed constitutional amendment would reform the primary process. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Had Amendment 3 — the proposed Constitutional amendment that promises to tear down Florida’s political primaries and build them anew — been the law in 2018, the general election candidates for governor that year arguably might have been two Republicans.

The Democratic candidate, Andrew Gillum, would already have been eliminated.

We can explain:

The amendment, if approved by 60 percent or more of the voters on Nov. 3, would throw open Florida’s primary elections to the state’s nearly 3.7 million voters who aren’t affiliated with any party.

Significantly, it also would throw candidates for any office into one pool for voters to select from, sending the top two vote-getters into the general election, regardless of their party. Meaning that the general election could involve two Republicans or two Democrats.

It’s called a “top two” or “jungle” primary and would apply to elections for governor, the Florida Cabinet, and the Legislature.

Republican Ron DeSantis won 916,298 votes in the 2018 GOP primary. Republican Adam Putnam won 592,518. Gillum won 522,164 in his party’s primary. Gillum might have been finished even before his narrow loss to DeSantis in the general election that year.

Of course, that’s one scenario that opponents of the proposal have been highlighting — supporters of Amendment 3 note that it doesn’t account for the no-party-affiliation voters who they predict would flock to the primaries if allowed.

And the amendment is all about bringing those voters into the candidate selection process, where the sponsors hope they will help provide a cooling influence in a hot political environment that promotes extremism and polarization.

Supercharged rhetoric and “raw meat”

Glenn Burhans Jr., chairman of the sponsoring organization, All Voters Vote, notes that, between 1990 and now, non-affilated voters have expanded their share of the electorate from about 7 percent to 26 percent.

Glenn Burhans Jr. Credit: Stearns Weaver

“Voters are rejecting the two major parties because of the political divisiveness, because of rhetoric that is supercharged, highly heated, raw meat to the extreme ends of both parties. The vast majority of Americans are tired of that,” Burhans said in a telephone interview.

As a consequence, “things are not getting done by government, things that really need to be addressed,” he said. “When you’ve got nearly one third of Florida voters shut out of the process, how can our government truly be reflective of and responsive to the diversity of Florida’s voters? I don’t think it can be.”

Florida is one of 16 states that hold “closed” primaries, in which only registered members of a party may help select its nominees.

Another 15 states hold “open” primaries, in which any voter may vote in any party’s primary — in other words, voters may cross party lines. Additional states use mixed systems and four states — California, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Washington — deploy the “top two” system.

“At All Voters Vote, we are committed to the proposition that every voter in Florida should have the right to cast a meaningful ballot,” the committee says on its website.

The committee has been raising money since March 2015, with its first big donation of $25,000 coming from Burhans’ law firm, Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson, which went on to invest heavily in the campaign.(Burhans, by the way, is the registered agent for Gillum’s Forward Florida political committee.)

Miguel “Mike” Fernandez. Credit: MBF Healthcare Partners

The really big money, though, has come from Miguel “Mike” Fernandez, billionaire chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners L.P., a Coral Gables hedge fund that operates in the health care sector. He’s contributed nearly $6.8 million from his own pocket as well as family and trust accounts, according to Florida Division of Elections records.

Fernandez, a former major GOP fundraiser who left that party following Donald Trump’s election, and who also backs immigration reform, didn’t respond to requests for comment. He told the Miami Herald in 2018: “I believe our nation’s founding principles provide that all who register should be able to vote. While three-quarters of all Americans support immigration reform, this wish is not represented by the majority of those currently in public office.”

The Dems and GOP wanted the amendment kicked off 

Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, urged the Florida Supreme Court to kick the amendment off the ballot. The Florida Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Florida supported her in that request.

Among other complaints, the GOP argues the measure would freeze grass-roots Republicans out of the candidate selection process and “will charge taxpayers millions to make us vote like they do in liberal states like California and Washington.”

“We support the democratic process and a system that gives voters more opportunities to choose a candidate that reflects their values. This ballot initiative would do the opposite,” said Democratic chairwoman Terrie Rizzo has said. “A proposal which eliminates the chance for a Democrat to make the ballot is not democratic.”

Arguments Moody filed with the court raised two main points. One is that the ballot language would confuse voters used to Florida’s established partisan primaries. The second is that the amendment would still allow parties to nominate candidates to participate in the top-two primary, but doesn’t explain how that would work or ensure rank-and-file party members may participate.

The court disagreed in a ruling handed down in March. The majority noted that its review is restricted to determining whether the ballot language is clear, and the justices concluded that it is; and whether sponsors engaged in “logrolling” (assembling multiple purposes into one initiative). Again, the justices concluded they did not.

The minority vote

Other opponents include the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, which argues it would dilute the minority and progressive votes. “If you are for Amendment 3, you are not for the minority community — period,” Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, who leads the Senate Democratic caucus, said during a news conference in early September, according to a report in the Tallahassee Democrat.

The reason is that white non-aligned voters could flood the polls in districts now dominated by Black Democratic voters, caucus members explained. The district might still produce a Democratic officeholder, but he or she might not be Black.

Sean Shaw at the Capitol on Friday
Sean Shaw

Former House member Sean Shaw, the 2018 Democratic nominee for attorney general, argued that although a few minority House members represent predominantly white districts, none do in the Senate.

“When you diminish the power of the Black electorate, you will necessarily, as a direct consequence of that, have less Black state senators,” he said.

Burhans counters that, of the independent voters in Florida, who cannot now participate in party primaries, 1 million are minorities.

“What’s the message we’re sending to those voters? Unless you join a political party you’re vote doesn’t matter? Your voice doesn’t count? That’s not right. It’s not fair,” he said. “These are people who are paying taxes to fund the elections that they’re blocked from participating in.”

Still, concern about dilution of the minority vote persuaded the League of Women Voters of Florida to come out against this amendment’s language, notwithtstanding that organization’s overall support for opening up the primary system.

“It is our belief that top-two open primaries would have a strong adverse impact on African-American representation in Florida,” the League says in a written statement posted on its website. “The League of Women Voters of Florida is very much in support of open primaries and would wholeheartedly support this measure if it were not tied to top two.”

The ACLU of Florida came out against the measure on Thursday, citing the effect on minority voters and the possibility that party members might lose the chance to vote for one of their own in general elections.

The organization added: “The measure also raises First Amendment concerns by hindering political dissent and a political party’s freedom of association, as well as the ability to select its candidates and messaging.”

Here is the text of Amendment 3:

All Voters Vote in Primary Elections for State Legislature, Governor, and Cabinet

Allows all registered voters to vote in primaries for state legislature, governor, and cabinet regardless of political party affiliation. All candidates for an office, including party nominated candidates, appear on the same primary ballot.

Two highest vote getters advance to general election. If only two candidates qualify, no primary is held and winner is determined in general election. Candidate’s party affiliation may appear on ballot as provided by law. Effective January 1, 2024.

It is probable that the proposed amendment will result in additional local government costs to conduct elections in Florida. The Financial Impact Estimating Conference projects that the combined costs across counties will range from $5.2 million to $5.8 million for each of the first three election cycles occurring in even-numbered years after the amendment’s effective date, with the costs for each of the intervening years dropping to less than $450,000.

With respect to state costs for oversight, the additional costs for administering elections are expected to be minimal. Further, there are no revenues linked to voting in Florida. Since there is no impact on state costs or revenues, there will be no impact on the state’s budget. While the proposed amendment will result in an increase in local expenditures, this change is expected to be below the threshold that would produce a statewide economic impact.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.