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  1. Florida Politics

Romano: Florida elections need to come out of the Dark Ages

Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, seen here in a campaign stop in Tampa in April, has remade his image in order to appeal to hardcore conservatives in the upcoming primary election. [Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jul. 7, 2018

For his first 22 years in public office, sincerity may have been the best thing he had going for him. Agree with his politics or not, it was hard to ignore the aw-shucks charisma of Adam Putnam. He was genuine, he was conservative, he was everybody's neighbor.

And then he came up against a Trump-endorsed candidate in the Republican primary for Florida governor, and Putnam's authenticity left the farm. He recast himself as an NRA zealot. An immigrant hardliner and an anti-intellectual.

Granted, this decision to pander was entirely Putnam's.

But the underlying fault may be Florida's.

When it comes to political primaries, the Sunshine State is living in the Dark Ages. Florida is one of only nine states that insists on running completely closed primaries.

The result is a rabid form of group-think during the primary season. Democrats go hard left, Republicans go hard right, moderates are less valued, and the divisions between us grow and grow.

The rationale for this is not just archaic, it is fast becoming non-existent outside of party leadership. It doesn't just cater to our more extreme tendencies, it also excludes millions of voices.

As recently as 1995, registered Republicans and Democrats combined for 91 percent of the voters in Florida. Today, they are down to 72 percent. And that means around 3.5 million voters do not get to vote in the primaries.

So what's the solution?

Based on research by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states have partially closed primaries that are far less restrictive. Some decide from year to year whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate. Others mandate that unaffiliated voters are always allowed in primaries.

Another 21 states go a step farther and allow voters to cross party lines, although they are limited to just one primary each election. In other words, a registered Republican can decide to vote in either the Democratic or the GOP primary but not both.

Finally, there are four states that use a jungle primary, or top-two, system. There are slight variations, but this basically involves a completely open primary with the two leading candidates moving on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Washington and Nebraska have this style of primary. Louisiana has something similar. But the jungle primary has been most famously utilized in California since 2012.

The brainchild of former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the jungle primary was supposed to minimize partisanship and end gridlock in the state Capitol.

Six years later, the effectiveness of this system is still open for debate. There are those who say it has favored centrist candidates over extremists, but others claim it has minimized the impact of third-party candidates.

The most common complaint/fear is that the jungle primary occasionally knocks one party out of a race. For instance, there were 61 congressional and statewide races in California's primary last month. Of those 61, there were four races that sent either two Democrats or two Republicans to the general election. However, the general election was already considered a foregone conclusion in those cases and so there was little gnashing of teeth.

If you want a better example of a jungle primary's potential risk, you might consider Florida's current gubernatorial race.

First of all, the past two governor's races in Florida have been determined by two points or less, so it's safe to say victory is not a foregone conclusion for either party.

With just two legitimate contenders on the Republican side, let's say Putnam and Ron DeSantis share the conservative vote fairly equally and get 26 and 23 percent in a jungle primary.

With five contenders on the Democratic side — Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine — it's not inconceivable that the party gets more overall support in the primary but fails to advance to the general election because the five candidates split the vote. In that scenario, if none of the Dems got more than 23 percent, then the general election would be between Putnam and DeSantis.

So does that make a jungle primary better or worse than a closed primary?

I don't think the answer is as simple as yes or no.

What I do know is that a completely closed primary doesn't work. For either side. Putnam isn't the only candidate forced to pander to his party's base. The Democrats are pretty much all aboard the $15 minimum wage, legalize pot, hug a tree bandwagon.

The reason is they know they have to appeal to the hardcore base of their parties. In the 2014 gubernatorial primary, only 22.9 percent of Republicans and 18.2 percent of Democrats bothered to vote.

Meanwhile, a few million unaffiliated voters had no choice but to sit it out.

Hate the idea of a jungle primary?

Fine.

But let's stop empowering the radicals among us, and come up with some form of open primary that better reflects Florida's centrist point of view.

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