Florida’s Shame – Nearly 1/3 of its Registered Voters are Barred from Participation.

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With 20 Million People Living in Florida, more than 2 million should pick our next Governor. 

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has already declared. While he is not alone on the GOP side, he is the only real contender who has already begun to officially campaign. Expect State Senator Jack Latvala to join the fray and House Speaker Richard Corcoran to follow after the 2018 legislative session. Perhaps businessman Ron Bergeron will run too on the Republican side. For the Democrats, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum are in. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine may also run. The Democratic and Republican primaries will most assuredly be very exciting, who knows, maybe even inspiring political campaigns.

With 20 million residents Florida has a massive number of unregistered voters, but the civic sloth is not our issue. Truth is, nearly 13 million citizens are registered to vote, and many of them fail to show up on election day, even after election officials have done back flips to enhance participation. Ballot drop off, vote by mail, absentee ballots and early voting have changed how operatives target voter communication, but these gimmicks have not increased participation. The same people vote, just at different times. Frankly, we believe the effort to increase voter turn-out is a colossal waste of time. Those who wish to participate, find a way. Voting should not be inconvenient, but it should require a little effort given the blood, sweat and tears shed for the right to do it.

Florida is a “Closed Primary” state.  Meaning, if you wish to vote in the Republican or Democratic Primaries, you must be registered by election book closing as a Republican or a Democrat and one can only vote the ballot of one’s party of registration. Statistically, recent state Division of Elections numbers showed these registration numbers:  4.5M or 35% are registered Republican. 4.9M or 38% are registered Democrats.

Stunningly, 3.5M or 27% of Florida’s registered voters are affiliated with minor parties or registered without party affiliation. This means they get the same ballot in general elections, but they are completely shut out of primary ballots containing nominees for major party elections.

Some might say if you wish to vote in a primary, register with a party. Parties are not what they used to be, and in many cases, partisan registration can affect careers. Many voters have personal, professional, or other reasons to shun Party labels. With the nastiness that comes with politics, the lack of privacy of how one registers and general disgust with partisanship and politics, fewer and fewer voters select a party when they register. This trend picked up steam in 1995 at the implementation of the National Voter Registration Act or the “Motor Voter” law that saw registrations spike in many states, even if that spike failed to lead to more voters showing up. It is likely that many disinterested citizens became registered because it was easier to say yes – the socially desired response – than no.

These are all fair arguments for Closed primaries, and we believe the political parties, like the Key Club, Rotary and other civic organizations, have a right to determine who represents them in both internal leadership positions as well as general election ballots, providing these organizations pay for the cost of their elections.

The reason primaries are closed and all citizens get to pay for them is because Republicans and Democrats make the rules, the laws and control public spending. But that doesn’t mean the rules are right, correct, fair, or even Constitutional. How does requiring all citizens to pay for elections while allowing only a certain class to participate in the most fundamental right of citizenship we know, voting, pass any test of Equal Access? But if the Democrats and GOP refuse to pay for their primary elections, these elections should become open to anyone registered to vote.

There are many ways to accomplish this. Open primary, where any voter can opt in to one or the other Party’s primary. We prefer the Louisiana style ballot where all candidates from all Parties are listed on a first ballot. If no candidate earns 50% +1 of the vote, a second election is called for the top two vote getters. These top two could be from the same party, different parties or without a party. Imagine our candidates having to appeal to all voters from the beginning of a campaign.  No more tacking right or left for a primary and tacking back toward the middle for a general. Candidates would have to have mass appeal to win at all levels of elections. This might well lessen partisan gridlock, encourage compromise and bipartisanship since elected officials wouldn’t have to fear being “Primaried” for working with the other side on important issues.

Florida was one of the last states to eliminate the Second Primary election, long thought to be a vestige of racism where whites could converge to make sure black candidates never got through a multi-candidate primary. Racial politics may or may not have improved, redistricting laws seem to guarantee that certain candidates win elections, and that seems like the worst kind of racism to us, but keeping primaries closed in a system as dysfunctional as our federal government and what Florida’s Legislature is becoming.
One would think the Constitutional Revision Commission would make this issue one of its most prominent. Not surprisingly, they seem disinterested. Lest we forget they are all appointed by partisan elected officials. What we need is one good litigant and a great pro-bono lawyer – a veteran who is not a partisan who wants to vote – or one good leader with a big checkbook and political savvy to emerge and make this important issue a public policy crusade.