Group wants primaries for all - Open Primaries
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Posted by jesse shayne on June 27, 2016 at 2:12 PM

Group wants primaries for all

This article was written by James Call for the Tallahassee Democrat

Leon County taxpayers will spend more than $606,000 this year for Democratic and Republican parties’ primaries – members’ only affairs. In exchange for the money, they can expect two presidential candidates that a record number of Americans don’t like and two congressional elections in districts so gerrymandered that half of the voters effectively have no say in who will represent their interests in Washington next year.

“I think it’s time we ask why we allow the political parties to dominate the elections,” said Ion Sancho, Leon County Supervisor of Elections. “Voting is the most basic civil right; no other rights stand if you don’t get to vote who represents you in government.”

Sancho is a nationally recognized voter advocate who is credited with creating early voting and is in the final months of a 28-year career as the county’s elections chief. He and academics and political players say dissatisfaction with the two major parties is at an all-time high — a view backed by numerous national polls.

“It has been building for some years with large and growing numbers of people not identifying or registering with either major parties, particularly millennials,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor. “The negative approval ratings, distrust of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have brought the dislike of the major parties into full view.”

As recently as 20 years ago, 88 percent of Florida registered voters belonged to either the Democratic or Republican Party. Today that number is 73 percent. The current breakdown, according to the state Division of Elections, shows Democrats claim 38 percent of voters, Republicans 35 percent and 27 percent registered as something else.

In 10 counties, No Party Affiliate is the second largest group, pushing one of the two major parties into third place. In two counties, Clay and Collier, NPAs are within 400-some votes of surpassing Democrats.

Yet, given the way the Legislature draws Florida’s political districts, few statehouse, and congressional races are competitive. In those races, it is common for one of the major political parties not to field a candidate and in many of those contests, more than half of the voters are barred from casting a ballot because they are not a member of the party for which the district was drawn.

In Leon County, 92,000 voters may as well skip the congressional election because the district they live in was specifically drawn for a party to which they don't belong and that party’s primary is open to members only.

Congressional District 2 was drawn for the GOP. No Democrat has yet to file and the Republican Aug. 30 primary is closed because a Libertarian candidate will be on the November ballot. Florida law closes primaries if the winner will face opposition in a general election.

Congressional District 5 was drawn for Democrats. A Republican has filed, thus shutting out about two-thirds of the district voters to a Democratic primary in which incumbent Corrine Brown is facing two challengers.

“I would say impossible,” said Matt Isbell, a data researcher and consultant, when asked about a Republican upset in 5.

“With President Obama carrying it by 63 percent and Charlie Crist by 59 percent, there is really not a shot for the GOP there,” concluded Isbell.

This election year, primary voters will essentially elect more than half of the Representatives in the Florida House, 16 of 40 state senators and 4 of 27 U.S Representatives. Some primary winners will face either a write-in or Libertarian candidate in November and if they were to lose it will be the upset of the century.

Sancho thinks there is a subtle cynicism built into the current system, requiring taxpayers to pay for private elections to elect public officials but not open to all voters.

“Why? Why do we force people to register with a political party?” asked Sancho. “The parties no longer represent something I want to enshrine in state statute by ensuring that any party is subsidized by taxpayers.”

He’s not alone.

Since March 2015 a group of Floridians has been working to place a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would eliminate government-funded party nominations and allow all voters to vote in primaries for congress, the legislature, and governor.

“We are proposing a system that says, ‘All voters can participate in most elections and they won’t be forced to join a political party to do so,'” said Steven Vancore, a Tallahassee pollster and consultant working with All Voters Vote Inc. “The current system is flawed in that it systematically bars voters from participating in meaningful elections.”

All Voters Vote Inc., has spent more than a quarter-million dollars in the past 15 months, researching and developing the ballot language for the amendment. It is modeled after systems in place in California and Washington and similar to Louisiana’s.

California adopted a top-two primary election system in 2010. Under it the parties no longer nominate a candidate; all candidates run in a primary and voters can support a candidate of their choice regardless of party registration. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote the top two finishers face off in a general election.

Proponents say it: produces more competitive elections; forces candidates to appeal beyond their party’s base and leads to a more functional election.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who has yet to face opposition in 2016, said he thinks the approach would produce a legislature more representative of Florida.

“If we’re honest about it, to win in the primaries you have to recognize who in the party will actually vote and play to them,” said Montford.

Primary elections attract super voters — activists who never miss an election. They tend to be more liberal or conservative than the average voter; people who believe no tax is ever justified or are still smarting from the failure of the ERA amendment to pass. Low turnout in primaries gives them the upper hand in selecting nominees, especially when politicians draw “safe districts” to run in.

“It’s almost as if no one is in the middle thinking about America,” said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “Everybody is saying they are but they are really thinking about the red and blue and I think the country is not doing well because of it.”

Vasilinda and others say the goal of open primaries is to encourage elected officials to listen to a broader section of the population they represent. Since adopting the new system, California voters’ approval rating of government has increased four times over to 44 percent and individual approval of state lawmakers doubled to 53 percent, according to a League of Women Voters’ analysis.

The proposal does take power away from the two major parties, but Jewett predicts they would survive the change.

“I think this would open up the system quite a bit and allow voters a chance to select candidates without the current primary system locking them out and narrowing choices,” said Jewett. “Both California and Louisiana have elected only Democrats and Republicans since adopting the system – so a change like this would not result in the death of the two major parties.”

Sancho, who is retiring after the November election, expects the political establishment to fight the proposal.

“My experience has been that the parties are more interested in controlling elections than they are in increasing participation,” said Sancho.

During Sancho's tenure as supervisor, the Legislature has resisted even his minor efforts to increase voter participation. In 2004, he had about two dozen braille ballots created for visually impaired voters. The next year, Florida lawmakers prohibited him from doing it again.

All Voters Vote will need to produce more than 600,000 petition signatures by February 2018 for placement on the November ballot — the exact number of signature will be based on 2016 voter turnout.

Florida by the Numbers

Florida voter registration breaks down as of April 30, 2016:

  • Democratic: 4,636,844
  • Republican: 4,374,542
  • No Party Affiliated: 3,866,899
  • Minor parties: 333,431
  • Total voters: 12,211,716

Florida voter registration for the year 1990:

  • Democratic: 3,149,747
  • Republican: 2,448,488
  • Other: 432,926
  • Total voters: 6,031,161

Florida Division of Elections


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