Amendment 3 would suppress Black representation in Florida, new report says

Should Floridians approve "jungle primaries"? Sean Shaw says no. Here's why.
A constitutional amendment that would turn Florida’s primary elections into a top two open primary system is on the Nov. 3 ballot.
A constitutional amendment that would turn Florida’s primary elections into a top two open primary system is on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Published Aug. 12, 2020|Updated Aug. 12, 2020

Voters in November will decide whether to drastically change how Floridians pick their elected leaders in the future, and a new analysis concludes Black representation in Tallahassee would plummet if it passes.

The analysis, released Wednesday by the nonprofit People Over Profits, raises concerns about Amendment 3, a ballot referendum that would turn Florida’s primary elections into a top two open primary system. Under that system, sometimes called a “jungle primary,” all candidates running for a state office in Florida would be on the same primary ballot regardless of party and all registered voters can weigh in. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary then advance to the general election.

This system will make it much harder for minority candidates to win legislative races, said former state Rep. Sean Shaw, the Tampa Democrat who created People Over Profits. Here’s how.

Shaw gives the example of Sen. Darryl Rouson, who represents the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg in a majority Democratic district. In a Democratic primary, the electorate in Rouson’s district is 49 percent black. Voters tend to choose candidates that represent their community, and in that primary, a Black candidate, like Rouson, is likely to fare better.

But if Republican and no-party affiliation voters could participate in that primary, the electorate is suddenly much whiter, which could influence the outcome of the primary. A Democrat is still likely to come out ahead in a general election, but there’s a greater chance that the Democratic candidate advancing would be white, Shaw said.

The analysis published by People Over Profits predicts Black representation would fall in both chambers if this constitutional amendment passes. In the House, eight of the 17 Black majority districts would see a significant reduction in likelihood of candidates of color winning under a top-two system. In the Senate, all four Black senators representing majority-minority districts would have a more difficult time winning elections, the analysis says.

“We’re at a place and a time where I don’t think decreased minority representation is where we want to go,” Shaw said.

The catalyst behind this effort is Mike Fernandez, a billionaire health care investor and a past finance chairman to then-Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign. Fernandez has pumped more than $6.2 million into All Voters Vote, the political committee leading the charge. The powerhouse lobbying firm Stearns Weaver Miller has poured in more than half a million dollars as well.

“Florida is among only a handful of states that do not allow all qualified voters to participate in primaries. How backwards is this? Almost a third of voters are registered as neither Democrats nor Republicans,” Fernandez told the Miami Herald last year.

The amendment would apply to elections for governor, state cabinet members and the state legislature, but not Congress or the president.

The theory behind the measure is that allowing no-party affiliation and third-party voters to participate in primaries would discourage candidates from catering to the base of their party and would yield more moderate candidates. Fernandez said this would help end gridlock on issues like immigration, in which “three-quarters of all Americans support immigration reform, this wish is not represented by the majority of those currently in public office.”

But the idea goes well beyond traditional open primaries, which typically allow non-partisan voters to pull a ballot of their choice at the polling place on election day. Shaw said he agrees that the state should allow the growing number of registered no-party affiliation voters to participate in primaries. But, he said, this isn’t the right way to do it.

There are other potential unintended consequences. For example, look no further than the 2018 gubernatorial race in Florida, which featured two Republican candidates and five Democrats. In a jungle primary, those candidates would likely split the vote within their respective parties, and the two candidates to emerge out of a primary very well could have been Ron DeSantis and Adam Putnam, both Republicans.

Of course, that could happen in reverse, too. Which is why the Republican Party of Florida has joined the Florida Democratic Party in opposing the amendment.

Shaw doesn’t have Fernandez’s deep pockets and hopes to lead a grassroots effort to convince Floridians to vote no on Amendment 3. It needs to surpass 60 percent support on Nov. 3 to pass.

“There’s a real high level of concern because it sounds great at first blush,” Shaw said. “But a wide swath of people who don’t usually align are against it, because it’s a bad idea.”