Column: Party affiliation should not be issue in St. Petersburg mayoral race

Florida's closed primary system shuts out many voters and produces more extreme candidates. Times (2016)
Florida's closed primary system shuts out many voters and produces more extreme candidates.Times (2016)
Published

Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith — whom I often read and always respect — recently critiqued nonpartisan elections. Examining the St. Petersburg mayoral race between Republican Rick Baker and Democrat Rick Kriseman, Smith wrote that party affiliation tells us "plenty about a candidate" and that ignoring it or making it off-limits in nonpartisan elections is "absurd."

I agree that party affiliation is an important tool indicating to voters a candidate's core beliefs and foreshadowing a governing philosophy. Yet the two major parties have become so extreme that people are rejecting both by registering to vote with "no party affiliation." If current trends continue, the largest group of voters in Florida will soon be those who have declined to wear a party label.

Because of this, party affiliation should not be used to exclude qualified voters from determining who will represent them, as is the case in closed party primaries. Partisan elections should be more like our nonpartisan ones, where all qualified voters can vote regardless of party affiliation of the voter or candidate.

Even with fairly drawn districts, the overwhelming majority of partisan races will not be meaningfully contested in a general election. This is because in Florida's closed primary system the candidate receiving the most votes in the majority party's primary is the de facto winner of the seat. In most legislative districts, the "majority" party is outnumbered by unaffiliated voters and those in the minority party. Yet these voters are effectively blocked from having a say in who represents them.

Under the closed primary system, party affiliation increasingly demands strict adherence to a set of extreme tribal beliefs at odds with mainstream voters and the "other tribe" (or, as I like to call them, fellow citizens). A candidate in a party primary must check all of the ideological boxes to secure the nomination. Pledging fealty to the tribe is required whether those beliefs are uniformly held or whether they bear upon how the candidate performs once elected.

Candidates in partisan races win or lose by toeing the party line, which results in political standoff and gridlock in office. In the extreme, party tribalism results in devaluing — if not dehumanizing — those who do not share the same views. This has made it impossible to develop rational public policy on most important issues and, worse, has resulted in diminished respect for our political institutions and a polarized society.

The race for St. Petersburg mayor is instructive. The frontrunner, according to Smith, is a Republican who leads in polling despite the fact that 60 percent of St. Pete voters are registered Democrats. That polling suggests that Baker appeals to a cross section of voters broader than his party regardless (or in spite) of his party affiliation. He could not do this if he first had to run in a Republican primary.

Candidates who advocate policies that would appeal to the majority of voters outside their party are likely to be "primaried" — outflanked by someone taking more extreme positions in order to win the party's nomination. Because Baker is running in a nonpartisan election, he need not worry about being "primaried." In this example, at least for now, his broader support in the middle could overcome any opposition from the extreme wings of both parties.

Former state Rep. Frank Peterman, a Democrat, told Smith: "Party affiliation does not factor on the ballot, and what I want for my city is the best possible candidate."

Isn't that the point? The best possible candidate should be one who — regardless of party affiliation — will listen to varying views, carefully deliberate on the merits and diligently work in service of the greatest good, not the narrowest of interests.

Party affiliation is an important indicator of core beliefs and values, but it should not be used to disqualify legally eligible voters from choosing those who will represent them. Electing the best candidate must be the goal in designing an electoral system. That can only happen when the system reflects the will of all voters, not just a select few.

Glenn Burhans is an attorney in Tallahassee whose practice includes election and political activity law. He can be reached at [email protected]

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