As suspense builds over whether Gov. Charlie Crist decides this week to skip the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate and run as an independent candidate in November, there is a broader issue at play. The governor would not be confronted with this difficult decision and more Florida voters would have a voice if primary elections were open to more voters and more hospitable to more mainstream candidates.
Florida is one of fewer than 20 states that close both the Republican and Democratic primaries to all but voters registered as members of those respective parties. That means 22 percent of the state's 11 million registered voters, including more than 2.1 million voters who have no party affiliation, are shut out of the primaries. They cannot influence the selection of the Republican and Democratic nominees they will see on the November ballot, so their choices are limited before they get to vote. It is not good for representative government to silence so many voters.
The problem is compounded by the pitiful voter turnout for primaries, which attract only the most ardent partisans. The average turnout in Florida primaries over the last 55 years is just 35 percent, and that modest level has been reached just twice in the last 30 years. Combine closed primaries with low voter turnout, and the result is predictable: The primary system is designed to benefit the most extreme, ideological candidates at the expense of those who would appeal to a broader spectrum of voters. Good luck finding a moderate, middle-of-the-road candidate from either political party in November if they have to survive a contested primary election first.
Republicans helped create this situation. They led the charge to scrap primary runoff elections for 2002 to make Democrats uncomfortable and benefit incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush. Primary runoffs, where the top two primary election finishers face off, had been around since Florida was essentially a one-party state controlled by Democrats. Without the runoffs, some of the state's best leaders — Democrats LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles — never would have made it to the Governor's Mansion or the U.S. Senate.
The leaders in the Republican primaries for governor (Attorney General Bill McCollum) and Senate (former state House Speaker Marco Rubio) are the most conservative and the least likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters in the general election. Crist is hardly a liberal, but he has been under attack by conservatives for daring to embrace the president of the United States and for vetoing an education bill that was more about busting the teacher unions than achieving consensus on smart reforms. No wonder Crist is considering a run as an independent candidate.
The closed primary system is not just a problem for Republicans. Democrats have their own ideological candidates and litmus tests, and they also would benefit from more moderate candidates in some races. But the answer is not reviving primary runoff elections.
The best option for opening up the electoral process to more voters and attracting more mainstream candidates is to allow open primaries where all voters can participate in the primary election of their choice. Voters could announce at the voting precinct which primary election ballot they wanted.
To make it even better, an instant runoff could be added. That system allows voters to select their first and second choices at the same primary election. Second choices come into play only if the leading candidate does not have a majority of the votes. Computers keep adding the second choices of voters whose first choices were out of the running until one of the leading candidates has a majority. It sounds more complicated than it is, but it achieves the same purpose as the old primary runoff elections while saving time and money.
Crist will decide what is best for his political future. What would be best for Florida voters in the long run would be to change the restrictive primary election system that forces him to make this choice and cuts too many voters out.