Florida voters get to decide on who votes in primaries

The citizen initiative asks voters to end the practice that prevents anyone who has not registered with a party — nearly one-third of all voters — from deciding who runs in the general election.
A voter drops off a mail ballot for early voting at the Pinellas County Election Services County Building on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
A voter drops off a mail ballot for early voting at the Pinellas County Election Services County Building on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published March 19, 2020|Updated March 20, 2020

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TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court voted Thursday to let voters decide in November whether they want to open the state’s closed primary system to all voters and inject a level of competition into state politics that it hasn’t seen in decades.

Justices voted 4-1 to allow the constitutional amendment, known as All Voters Vote on the November ballot. The citizen initiative asks voters to end the practice that prevents anyone who has not registered with a party — nearly one-third of all voters — from deciding who runs in the general election.

If approved by 60% of the electorate in November, all voters could vote in state and legislative races regardless of party affiliation, forcing candidates to appeal to more than a narrow minority to get elected. The two candidates, even two from the same party, who get the most votes in each primary would then advance to the general election.

“This may be the most important issue on the ballot in any state other than presidential election because all across the country, everyone is looking,’’ said Gene Stearns, a Miami attorney who has spearheaded the citizen measure for the last five years, with $6 million in funding from Miami businessman Mike Fernandez.

“If Florida allows non-partisan elections, everyone else will follow,’’ he said. “The whole objective is to reduce the toxicity of our political process.”

Under current law, only when a candidate has no opposition from outside their party can all voters cast a vote in that race in the primary. But for the past decade, new voters in Florida have increasingly rejected both major parties and registered as having no party affiliation and could not participate in primaries.

The proposal is backed by a bi-partisan 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.

But opponents include both the Democratic and Republican parties in Florida, as well as Attorney General Ashley Moody, a first-term Republican who argues that the ballot language is misleading because it fails to warn voters that the measure will upend the system.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Carlos Muniz agreed with the opponents, suggesting the ballot summary failed to inform voters that the proposal “would take away the Legislature’s discretion to provide for state-run elections to choose political party nominees for those offices.”

But the majority rejected that position and Chief Justice Charles Canady and justices Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson concluded: “The ballot summary clearly and unambiguously explains the chief purpose of the initiative, which is to allow all registered voters to vote in primary elections in Florida for state Legislature, governor and Cabinet.”

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In a concurring opinion, Lawson further expounded on his objection to Muniz’s claims, saying that the “proposed amendment does not preclude a state-sponsored partisan nomination process.” He argued that nothing prevents the Legislature from authorizing political parties to conduct a pre-primary to select its nominee for the primary ballot, thereby creating three elections in some cases as the state used to have before it abolished the run-off primary.

The state’s Supreme Court plays a critical role in ballot initiatives because it is required to decide whether they meet legal requirements, such as not being misleading to voters or not improperly bundling unrelated topics. Justices are not supposed to consider the merits of proposed amendments.

Florida is among a minority of states where primaries remain closed to voters outside the political parties. But the proposal is not popular with Florida’s Democratic and Republican parties, which have already lost clout against candidates by the influx of unlimited campaign cash into political committees from wealthy donors and powerful interest groups.

In Tuesday’s primary, for example, there were more than 3.6 million eligible voters — or about 26% of the electorate. — who were registered as having no party affiliation. They were unable to vote for presidential candidates. And in the August primary elections for Congress and the Legislature, they won’t be able to vote, either.

Stearns, who served as chief of staff to former House Speaker Dick Pettigrew and campaign manager to former Gov. Reubin Askew, both Democrats, said the goal is to break the lock polarized politics is having on government and provide an incentive for elected officials to listen to a broader swath of voters beyond their party’s base.

Under the current system, fringe groups within a party and large donors to a party can threaten to put up a candidate against an incumbent in order to persuade him or her to vote a certain way. The tactic, known as being “primaried” has worked to keep candidates of both parties from moving to the middle on many key issues before them.

Often special interests or party leaders attempt to pressure incumbents to align with their positions or be threatened with a challenge from a candidate backed by a wealthy donor or party faction.

Known as the “Top Two non-partisan primary system,” a similar process has been used in the state of Washington since 2004, in California since 2010, in Louisiana since 1975, and in Nebraska since 1936.

Also known as the “nonpartisan blanket primary,” or “jungle primary,” all candidates for the same elected state office, regardless of respective political party, run against each other in a primary and the two top winners advance to the general election.

Stearns first proposed the amendment in 2015 but was unable to get enough funding to gather signatures in time for the 2016 ballot. He said that when California adopted its open primary system it forced lawmakers to start working together to get things done.

“They not only have a balanced budget, they have an $8 billion surplus this year and they couldn’t even adopt a budget before this happened,’’ he said. He said he believes Florida’s state government has become equally dysfunctional.

All Voters Vote has gathered enough signatures to be on the ballot in large part because of the financial support from Fernandez, the Miami healthcare mogul.

Fernandez, a former Republican who renounced his party affiliation, told the Miami Herald in 2017 that Florida’s primary election system creates politicians more beholden to their political parties than the people of Florida.

Stearns acknowledged that with constitutional amendments and the presidential race being the only statewide issues on the November ballot, the parties put resources behind defeating it. But he was confident.

“All the polling indicate that we are going to do well with this,’’ he said. “The public intuitively sees that having everybody vote in every election is good.”


Article VI, Section 5

Summary: Allows all registered voters to vote in primaries for state legislature, governor, and cabinet regardless of political party affiliation. All candidates for an office, including party nominated candidates, appear on the same primary ballot. Two highest vote getters advance to general election. If only two candidates qualify, no primary is held and winner is determined in general election. Candidate’s party affiliation may appear on ballot as provided by law. Effective January 1, 2024. View Full Text

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