Activists hope state constitution commission will advance changes in Florida primary system
Government reformers and liberal activists and liberal groups want to reshape a central element of Florida’s election system by changing Florida’s Democrats-only and Republicans-only closed primaries into open primaries in which all independents can vote.
They’re hoping that the state Constitution Revision Commission, which meets once every 20 years, will endorse the idea. The commission holds public hearings Thursday and Friday in South Florida.
Tim Canova, founder of the political group Progress For All, said open primaries “are good for democracy. I think closed primaries keep voters away from the polls.”
John Opdycke, president of the national group Open Primaries, said in a statement that if the commission is “listening to Florida voters” it would place a referendum changing the system on the 2018 ballot.
Polling conducted on behalf of Progress For All, Open Primaries and an organization calling itself Florida Fair and Open Primaries, indicates there’s public support for changing the primary system.
Allowing independent voters to participate in Democratic or Republican primaries was supported by 74 percent and opposed by 20 percent in a survey conducted by Public Policy Polling.
Eliminating Democratic and Republican primaries for all offices below president, was supported by 70 percent of voters and opposed by 24 percent. Under the system, used in California, there is one primary for all candidates in both parties and all voters can participate. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance from the primary to the general election. Ending the ability of candidates to manipulate the system using write-in candidates was supported by 53 percent and opposed by 31 percent.
Under Florida’s current system, everyone regardless of party affiliation can vote in a primary when only one party is fielding candidates for a particular office. Since the primary winner in a race with no opposition gets the office without a contest in November, the intent is to give all voters a voice in who represents them.
A primary candidate who sees some advantage in closing the primary — for example a Democrat who's running against another Democrat who is likely to attract Republican voters — finds someone to qualify as a write-in candidate. As a result, only one party’s voters can participate in the primary. If there’s no write-in candidate, all voters can participate.
Public Policy Polling, used automated calls and internet surveys to poll 735 Florida voters from March 12-14. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Eight states have closed primaries like Florida’s according to the National Conference on State Legislatures website. Nine states allow independent or unaffiliated to vote in Democratic or Republican primaries. Another 15 states have completely open primaries. The rest have several other variations.
The Constitution Revision Commission is convened every 20 years to recommend changes to Florida voters. The panel held its first public hearing on March 29 in Orlando, so it’s too early to tell what changes it may propose.
It’s also unclear if the panel — appointed by political insiders that got to power through the current system — have any interest in pursuing changes sought by open primary advocates.
Canova, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in last year’s Democratic primary, said he hopes both parties recognize they’d benefit from bringing more voters into the primaries since they ultimately need to appeal to no party affiliation/independent voters in in general elections.
The 37 members include Darlene Jordan of Palm Beach, a philanthropist and major Republican Party financial backer; Fred Karlinsky of Weston, a shareholder with the Greenberg Traurig law firm and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition; Belinda Keiser of Parkland, vice chancellor of Keiser University and delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention; and Chris Smith, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer affiliated with the Trip Scott law firm and former Democratic leader in the Florida Senate and Florida House.
Its chairman is Carlos Beruff, a wealthy Manatee County home builder and friend of Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed him lead to the panel. Beruff unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the 2016 Republican primary.