Posted by Russell Daniels on May 07, 2019 at 5:14 PM
Brevard Democrats push resolution to allow nonpartisan voters to cast ballots in their primary
The Brevard County Democratic Executive Committee has overwhelmingly approved a resolution, urging the Florida Democratic Party to allow nonpartisan voters to cast ballots in the state's Democratic primaries, beginning in 2020.
Currently, Florida has a closed primary system, meaning only Democratic voters can vote in a Democratic primary and only Republican voters can vote in a Republican primary.
In Brevard, there are 179,351 registered Republican voters; 130,765 registered Democrats; 111,103 no party affiliation voters, also known as NPAs; and 5,414 members of minor political parties — a total of 426,633 registered voters.
It is those 111,103 NPA voters — representing 26 percent of the electorate — who would be affected by the proposal, as they would be able to vote in a Democratic primary, if this initiative becomes reality. However, as is currently the case, the proposal would not allow NPA voters to run for office in a Democratic primary.
During Wednesday's vote of Brevard Democratic precinct committeemen and committeewomen, 82 supported the proposal, one opposed it and one abstained.
"The overwhelming support for this resolution is an emphatic statement by local Democrats that we support the fundamental right of every American to vote in every election," Brevard Democratic Executive Committee Chair Stacey Patel said in a statement after the committee's vote. "This resolution is only one step toward building the political will across Florida to open our Democratic primaries, and the process may take much longer than we’d like."
In the meantime, Patel said: "We wholeheartedly encourage nonpartisan voters to register with their party of preference to ensure they are not excluded from Florida’s
closed presidential primaries in 2020."
Patel said she is hoping the proposal could be considered by the Florida Democratic Party State Executive Committee or its Rules Committee later this year. Patel contends that the state party can change party rules to allow open Democratic primaries without a change in state law.
She cites a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case involving Connecticut election law, which found that political parties have a First Amendment right to decide who can and cannot participate in their primary election, including nonpartisan voters.
But Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo says what the Brevard Democrats are pushing would require a change in state law.
"We definitely should not ignore NPAs, but … the party doesn’t make the determination on who gets to vote in our primary," Rizzo said in a post on the Brevard Democratic Executive Committee Facebook page.
To which Patel responded: "Things change. Challenging unconstitutional laws is one way to change them. Of course, that begins with establishing an imperative among our own members. I'm not a lawyer, but I believe the Supreme Court found In Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut that political parties have the freedom to associate with independent voters, and decided that states cannot impose a closed primary system because it denies the political party its right under the First and 14th Amendments to freely associate with individuals of its own choosing. So the ball very much appears it could be in our court."
So, based on the different interpretation of the law by Patel and Rizzo, the issue could make for an interesting discussion at a meeting of the state Democratic Party organization. (Rizzo, incidentally, defeated Patel in the 2017 party leadership election for Democratic state party chair.)
The open primary issue also could wind up in court, if the proposal gets support from the state Democratic Party.
Brevard Democratic Executive Committee Secretary Catherine Martinez expressed her support for the resolution in a post on the Brevard Democrats' Facebook page, saying: "Just because it's Florida 'law' doesn't make it right. Many things were lawful at one time, which are now deemed unconstitutional — many of which had to do with voting rights. There is one way to change that. The Florida Democratic Party platform itself supports maximizing and expanding voter participation. Opening primaries is not a reach for 'the party of inclusion.' "
Mel Martin, a Brevard Democratic precinct committeewoman and member of the county party's Communications Committee, said allowing NPA voters to vote in a Democratic primary would broaden the pool of those deciding on the party's candidates, and help make it a more accurate reflection of the community.
Martin says NPA voters should not be penalized by being shut out of the primary process because they chose not to register in a major political party.
“Everyone has a right to identify with whatever party or non-party they wish," said Martin, who was an NPA voter before becoming a Democrat prior to her 2018 run for a Florida Senate seat in District 14, which includes northern Brevard County and southern Volusia County. Martin lost that election to Republican Tom Wright.
"Unfortunately, too many of our nonpartisan neighbors feel ostracized or ignored due to the closed primary system. Rightly so," Martin said. "They aren’t able to determine what type of leader we want and need in government."
The Brevard Democratic Executive Committee vote follows passage of a similar measure by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party earlier this month. The Hillsborough County Democrat Party will consider a related measure next month.
These resolutions cite the 2017 report of the Unity Reform Commission of the Democratic National Committee, which was formed to reunite the Democratic Party following the presidential primaries between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which split the party.
The Unity Reform Commission report said it is "critical that all eligible persons participate in the electoral process, including the Democratic presidential nominating process,” and recommended that “the primary process be improved to ensure maximized participation and party growth.” The report also recommended that the “Democratic
National Committee and the party at all levels shall use all means, including encouraging legislation and changing party rules, to expand the use of primaries, wherever possible.”
This resolution dovetails on a Brevard Democratic Executive Committee platform adopted in 2017 that includes this statement on voting rights and home rule: “We believe voting is both a right and a responsibility of every American. We endorse automatic voter registration at age 18, open primaries, a national voting holiday, nonpartisan protections from gerrymandering, and guaranteed voting rights for every American citizen. We believe in home rule and ensuring that communities have a voice in their own government."
Patel said she believes many nonpartisan voters "support Democratic issues and candidates, but are opting out of our hyper-partisan system on principle, due to
polarization that has impeded our ability to create meaningful progress on issues that are important to all of us — including low wages, inadequate affordable housing and child care, rising health care costs, the corrupting influence of big money in our politics, and countless environmental crises.”
Patel said the resolution the Brevard Democrats are pushing would have no effect on Republican primaries in Florida, which would continue to be closed to NPA voters.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
His Political Spin column runs Sundays in FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649