Group proposes amendment to open Florida's primaries to all voters

If voters approve, the plan would change Florida's closed primary system.
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TALLAHASSEE — Armed with data that shows that the fastest growing segment of Florida's electorate is choosing no party affiliation, a bipartisan group of activists is pushing for a constitutional amendment to open Florida's closed primary system to all voters.

The All Voters Vote amendment will be delivered today to the Florida Division of Elections with the hope of getting enough signatures to place it on the 2016 ballot.

Miami lawyer Gene Stearns, who is leading the effort, said the goal is to encourage elected officials to listen to a broader swath of voters by giving voice to the growing number of Floridians who are written out of the state's primary election system because they choose not to register with any political party.

"The two parties are becoming increasingly extreme and increasingly shrill because the people who control the outcomes dictate what you have to do to be nominated to a particular party," said Stearns, who served as chief of staff to former House Speaker Dick Pettigrew and campaign manager to former Gov. Reubin Askew, both Democrats.

"The result of this is more and more people are becoming unwilling to identify with either of them. The consequence of their collective decision is making politics worse and governments more damaged than they have already become."

Under current law, only when a candidate has no opposition from outside their party can all voters cast a vote in that race in the primary.

The proposed amendment, if passed, would allow all registered voters to vote in primaries for congressional and state partisan offices regardless of the party affiliation of the voters or candidates.

The candidate who receives the most votes and the runner-up would advance to the general election. In state elections, the candidate who gets more than 50 percent of votes in the primary wins the election.

If the measure makes it to the ballot and is approved by 60 percent of voters, it would take effect in the 2018 election cycle.

"The way our primary system works, it excludes people from the process," said Jim Smith, a Republican and former Florida attorney general and secretary of state, who supports the initiative.

"When this has been adopted in other states, it really hasn't changed the makeup of Republican and Democrats elected, but it has changed the conversation — and it's a conversation that a broader spectrum of voters want to hear candidates talk about."

The group cites statistics and the results of a poll it has commissioned:

• In 2014, the monthly net registration figures show that an average of 55 percent of net voters (new registrants minus those who were taken out of the system) were of neither major party.

• The number of no party affiliated voters in Florida has grown 380 percent since 1990 and is now at 27 percent. That is expected to rise to 29 percent by November 2016 and 33 percent by 2022, during the next reapportionment cycle.

• The trend of voters rejecting both major parties will continue as older voters — who tended to register with a major party — die, and younger voters increasingly reject both major parties.

Smith, who served as secretary of state from 1987 to 1995, said he recommended the Legislature "take a look at something like this" 20 years ago as he saw that voters were increasingly registering outside of the major parties.

He pointed to the gridlock in Washington, and the stalemate over health care reform in Florida and said he believes it's a function of the partisan extremism that makes it politically impossible for people to compromise.

"The last session is a good example — where the philosophies are so far apart that they don't get together and compromise,'' Smith said.

Other supporters include former Democrat state legislator and Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte, and "prominent Republicans and Democrats who on a personal level all agreed with it but can't be 'identified' with it because they fear they'll be 'primaried,' " Stearns said.

Being "primaried" is a term that has become a fixture in the lexicon of partisan politics. It generally refers to an incumbent who faces a primary challenge from a candidate backed by a wealthy donor or party faction because the incumbent is considered not sufficiently partisan.

The group has raised $103,000 of the $3.5 million Stearns projects will be needed to get the measure on the ballot and passed. Contributions to date have come primarily from Stearns' law firm, Coral Gables developer John Abdo, Miami liquor distributor CC1 Companies and Miami Beach businessman Chris Findlater. The political committee has spent $80,000, nearly all of it on a California-based signature gathering company.

Known as the "Top Two non-partisan primary system," it has been in used in Washington state since 2004, in California since 2010, in Louisiana since 1975, and in Nebraska since 1936. It's on the ballot in Arizona in 2016. In Mississippi, a citizen's commission recommended that the state switch to Top Two nonpartisan primaries, and efforts are under way to place the Top Two system on the ballot in South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Illinois, Maine, Alaska, Colorado and Nevada — in addition to Florida, according to OpenPrimaries.org.

Opposition has primarily come from the political parties, who fear any change to the status quo, supporters say.

Scott Arceneaux, director of the Florida Democratic Party, said the party is unlikely to take a formal position against the initiative, but he believes it will weaken the party system and can lead to voter confusion.

He prefers an open primary that would allow all candidates to appeal to voters with no party affiliation in the primary, but allow for a candidate from each major party to be on the ballot in the general election.

"It's often sold as a way to moderate the electorate and force people to appeal to a broader base," he said. "But if the farthest right Republican becomes one of the top two vote getters, you don't end up with a moderate."

Glenn Burhans, a lawyer with the Stearns, Miller and Weaver law firm who drafted the ballot language, counters that the goal is to elect candidates who reflect the electorate.

"If those are the top two choices of the voters, that should be the result," he said. "They are going to be answerable to their constituents in the next election and they are not going to be able to cater to a small segment of the voting population."

"This isn't about policy, it's about power," said John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, the group promoting the system. "Whether it's a red state or blue state, you end up with legislators who are more open to hearings form all voters. That doesn't make them more moderate or more centrist. It makes them more accountable."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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