Dan Gelber has an idea that would help reinvigorate Florida's Democratic Party and promote democracy in the state. The former state legislator and unsuccessful candidate for attorney general wants to invite political independents to vote in Democratic primary races. While some party members leaders scoff at letting outsiders participate in the nomination process, Gelber's idea is a good one. Independent voters who vote in Democratic primaries would probably be more inclined to vote for those candidates in the general election, and the change would demonstrate that the Democratic Party is a big tent that welcomes moderates who don't want to commit to a single political party.
While there are about 4.6 million registered Democrats compared with 4.1 million Republicans in Florida, Democrats have little influence in Tallahassee. Since the 1996 election, when the Democrats lost their majority in the Florida House, the Legislature has been under Republican control. Democrats represent such small minorities in both chambers that they can't even slow down Republican bills. There are no Democrats in statewide office in the state capital, and the only Democrat elected statewide is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Meanwhile, the ranks of independents have swelled. Florida has just under 2.4 million registered voters with no party affiliation, compared with just 1.7 million a decade ago. Offering those voters the opportunity to weigh in on Democratic nominees would have multiple benefits. From the party's perspective, it could get more voters to pay attention to the Democratic candidates, which would be useful in the general election. As a civic good, it would allow for greater voter participation in the electoral process and could provide a moderating influence to the hyperpartisanship that has afflicted politics. Democratic candidates would have to appeal to voters who tend to be more moderate than traditionally liberal — and those are the voters who often decide general elections.
As Gelber points out, there are numerous disenchanted former Republicans like Charlie Crist. Crist had been a lifelong Republican in the Legislature and as governor but ran for a U.S. Senate seat as an independent after being left behind by the hard right-wing turn of his party. Democrats should welcome Crist and others looking for a political home with mainstream, commonsense values.
The Democratic Party could make this change simply by changing its own rules. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 25 years ago that political parties have a First Amendment right to include nonparty members in the nomination process. Doing so would also comport with the spirit of what Florida voters asked for in 1998 when they overwhelming passed a state constitutional amendment opening up party primaries to all voters if the primary would decide the election. Political parties have been subverting the amendment's intent by enlisting token write-in candidates to run in the general election.
Florida's Democratic Party should listen to Gelber. His idea would put the party in a position to attract independent voters and increase voter participation in the state overall. And if one major political party did it, the other one would be hard-pressed not to make the same change.