Push For Open Primary Begins In Florida As NPA & Independent Voters Gain More Clout

Jul 22, 2015

Voters cast their ballots.
Credit Sascha Cordner / WFSU-FM

A non-partisan organization wants to change the way Florida’s elected officials are chosen. They’re tired of partisanship and say the best way to address it is to make candidates appeal to a broader electorate. That means tapping in to the state’s nearly 2.9 million No Party Affiliated voters, who are largely locked out of state primaries.

Dwayne Pike is a Vietnam Veteran a registered No Party Affiliation voter. He created the site FloridaFair AndOpenPrimaries.org.  He says he’s not a political person, but the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush changed that. Pike served on swift boats during the Vietnam war. He says the attacks on now Secretary of State’s John Kerry’s service record and upset him.

“So I went to vote in the primaries or something like that, with my wife. And we got to the polls, and they said, ‘well, you can vote for the judges.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know who the hell the judges are.’ And they said, ‘well you can’t vote.’ And I’m going, ‘wait a minute, I served my country for these rights, and you’re saying I can’t vote’ and he said, ‘yeah’ and I said, ‘oh, okay’, and that’s how we got involved," Pike said. 

In 2004, Pike’s NPA affiliation cost him his vote in the primaries. While Florida’s primaries are technically “open”, they close when write-in candidates or a challenger from another party appears. This almost always happens, and  NPA’s and Independents get locked out.  Pike’s efforts in previous years to get a constitutional amendment before voters failed, but his advocacy hasn’t ended. He’s now supporting a  new effort to bring a truly open primary system to Florida voters. It’s led by Glen Burhans Jr., Chairman of the political action committee “All Voters Vote”.

“Nearly one-third of the electorate is disenfranchised in the primary process, and those primaries, by-and-large, control the outcome in the general election," he said. "Our legislators are being selected by a very small, narrow segment of the population.”

Burhans says now is the time to move on a constitutional ballot initiative to place all candidates on a single ballot. He says this Spring’s breakdown of the Republican-led legislature’s fight over healthcare reform, and the budget, coupled with ongoing lawsuits about gerrymandering of voting districts, should raise concern.

“Under the Top Two amendment, where all voters can vote in the primaries, politicians and candidates will have to be accountable and speak to a broader audience. …they won’t have these safe seats cut in backroom deals, they’ll have to step up and be accountable to all voters.”

“I think they’re trying to get at increasing participation in primaries…so you have a larger swatch of the electorate, particularly NPA’s and on that, I agree with that," said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director, Scott Arceneaux.

But Arceneaux doesn’t agree with putting the issue into Florida’s constitution. He  says state lawmakers can do the same thing by changing election laws.

"Allow NPA’s and Independent voters to vote in our primaries. In the Democratic primary, for example, allow all registered Democrats and Independents. So if you’re not a member of a major arty you can participate in the primary," he said.

But he also admits that’s a long-shot, since it would have to go to the legislature. The "All Voters Vote" proposal would allow the top two vote-getters to head to a runoff. But if a state-level candidate gets 50 percent plus-one of the votes, he or she would win.

All Voters Vote, Inc. has submitted its petition drive and ballot language to the Department of State for approval, which should come in the next week. The group needs about 68,000 signatures to trigger a Supreme Court review. If the Supreme Court signs off on it, they'll need to gather more than 600,000 more signatures to get it onto the November 2016 ballot.