Open Florida primaries? Democrats and Republicans unite against it.

If approved by 60 percent of the electorate in November, all voters could vote in state and legislative races regardless of party affiliation, forcing candidates to appeal to a broader constituency beginning in 2024.
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in Tampa.
An unidentified voter makes her way into a polling place located at the Bayanihan Arts and Events Center to vote in Tampa. [ Times (2016) ]
Published Oct. 13, 2020|Updated Oct. 13, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Faced with a constitutional amendment that threatens to undermine political party dominance over legislative races, a bipartisan pair of legislative leaders announced Tuesday that a lawsuit financed by the GOP was filed in the Florida Supreme Court asking the court to remove Amendment 3 from the November ballot.

The citizen initiative known as All Voters Vote asks voters to end the practice that prevents anyone who has not registered with a party — about one-fourth of all voters — from deciding who runs in the general election.

If approved by 60 percent of the electorate in November, all voters could vote in state and legislative races regardless of party affiliation, forcing candidates to appeal to a broader constituency beginning in 2024. The two candidates, even two from the same party, who get the most votes in each primary would then advance to the general election.

The last-minute attempt to derail the amendment was announced by Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican and incoming House speaker, and Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat and former Senate Democratic leader.

The plaintiff is Glenton “Glen” Gilzean Jr., who works for the Central Florida Urban League and is a former vice president for Step Up for Students, the nonprofit scholarship-funding organization that promotes school vouchers.

Glenton "Glen" Gilzean
Glenton "Glen" Gilzean [ Miami Herald ]

Representing Gilzean in court is Anne Corcoran, the wife of Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. The lawsuit was paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, said Sarah Bascom, spokesman for the plaintiff.

The lawsuit asks the court to invalidate the All Voters Vote proposal on the grounds that Black candidates running in the state’s current legislative districts could be disadvantaged if white candidates run against them in their primaries.

Florida has 14 million registered voters, including 5 million registered Republicans, 5.2 million registered Democrats and 3.6 million who have registered as no party affiliated (NPA).

Glenn Burhans, chair of All Voters Vote campaign, called the lawsuit a “grotesque misuse of the courts for a political stunt.”

Florida is one of only nine states with closed primaries and by introducing a level of competition not seen in most legislative primary and general election races in the state, "this amendment will empower more than 3.5 million voters, including 1.6 million voters of color by allowing them a say in who represents them,'' Burhans said.

The lawsuit notes that although the petition drive began in 2015, All Voters Vote was unable to collect enough signatures until Miami healthcare billionaire Miguel “Mike” Fernandez donated over $6 million over a nine month period to hire a petition-gathering firm to accelerate signature gathering.

It is now being opposed by the Florida League of Women Voters, ACLU of Florida, NAACP, the Florida State Conference and the Florida League of Conservation Voters.

The proposal is backed by a bipartisan group of activists who argue that because Florida state government is the product of a polarized election system it has failed to both represent the public and adequately respond to citizens' needs. On Tuesday, the All Voters Vote political committee released its first digital and social media ad, featuring former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson endorsing the amendment. Johnson is the spokesman for Simply Healthcare, which Fernandez founded.

Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, however, have been working to defeat it. On Sept. 8, the caucus produced a report, funded by People Over Profits, a non-profit organization that will not reveal its donors, that the caucus says proves that if Amendment 3 is enacted, voters will choose whites over Blacks and Hispanics in critical legislative seats.

According to the report, which examined the performance of past primary elections and tried to predict their performance if the amendment were law, “a flood of white GOP voters in safe Democratic districts will ‘bleach’ seats and seriously erode the voting power of African-Americans.”

But in a Tampa Bay Times op-ed published Tuesday, Burhans calls the report “misleading and flawed” because it “excludes nearly 3.8 million actual voters and voting results to suggest that letting all registered voters vote in primaries is somehow harmful to those voters, minority voters in particular.”

Reporters asked Sprowls and Cruz on Tuesday to respond to that criticism.

Cruz called Amendment 3 a “fully funded temper tantrum by a billionaire” that is a “real threat to representative democracy.”

She argues it “doesn’t allow for a fair fight” because partisan voters “could disrupt the opposing party’s elections and will undo 50 years of progress made towards ensuring minority representation.”

Cruz suggested that if the backers of Amendment 3 “wanted to really make positive change, they would have tried to pass the amendment to allow NPA voters to pick a primary to vote in.”

Burhans counters that if enacted, parties could pick their own candidates, such as holding their own primary elections. He said legislators could have fixed the system and opened the primaries but instead “failed to act to protect Florida’s voters” as a growing number of people have been turned off by the parties and registered as no party affiliated.

In 2021-23, Sprowls will be in charge of the next redistricting effort to reapportion legislative districts based on shifts in population. If Amendment 3 were enacted, legislators would have to abide by the current Fair District requirements in law and not diminish voting strength for minority districts.

Sprowls conceded that they can’t predict how NPA voters would perform. "We don’t know what the impact of this would be, which makes it political roulette,'' he said. But the unknown element makes it difficult to know how to draw the seats to protect minority districts.

"A simple fact beyond our control, the number of candidates who run, could shift an outcome,'' he said. “A plurality of minority voters may be determinative in the party primary, may not have the same impact in an everyone-votes scenario.”

If legislators draw sprawling districts to protect Black legislators, he said, that could undermine the spirit of the Fair District amendments which were designed to keep communities of interest together.

"This amendment presents itself as a good government reform but it will actually rob communities, geographic and demographic, of their voice by diluting the ability to influence a real primary election,'' Sprowls said.

The legal challenge is a long shot. In March, the Florida Supreme Court concluded the amendment met the legal requirements to be on the ballot — such as not being misleading to voters or not improperly bundling unrelated topics. Justices are not supposed to consider the merits of proposed amendments.

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