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'All Voters Vote' Initiative Looks To Overhaul Florida Primaries. Would It Change Campaigns, Too?

Brynn Anderson
AP Photo

A proposed citizens ballot initiative to let all voters, regardless of party affiliation, vote in primary elections could be headed to the 2020 ballot. One of its sponsors, Steve Vancore, believes the move would change the way Florida politicians campaign.

“I have long studied voter behavior, I’ve been working on voter behavior, voter analysis for over 30 years.” Vancore said. He’s president of Clearview Research, which runs political polling and focus groups.

Vancore is also a partner at Tallahassee-based communications firm, Vancore-Jones. He says the way Florida conducts its primary elections is a broken system.

“Florida is only one of 11 states that has a pure closed system,” Vancore said.

Most voters in the state know the drill – only voters registered to the two major parties can cast votes in primaries. Here’s why Vancore takes issues with that:

“If I know I’m only going to be challenged in a Democratic primary where only Democrats vote, or a Republican primary where only republicans vote, I don’t have to worry or care about the independent voters or the voters of the other party. So I can do whatever I want as long as I’m protecting either my left flank, or my right flank. And what happens then is, people don’t have to worry about larger policies.”

The seasoned pollster insists that idea has given rise to the current state of politics. He says every month in Florida, between 40 and 50% of new registered voters choose neither party.

“We see what’s happening in the presidential primary right now: Joe Biden, a solid Democrat – whether you like him or not isn’t the issue – Obama’s pick to be vice president, is being told in this primary process that he’s not left enough,” Vancore said, citing recent Democratic debates. “And likewise, in Republican primaries, it’s ‘who can be the furthest to the right.’”

The ‘All Voters Vote’ ballot initiative would apply to Florida elections for state legislature, governor and cabinet. To Vancore, it’s a simple idea.

“All of them appear on a common ballot, every voter gets to vote on that, and the top two basically go to a playoff in November,” he explained.

The ballot initiative has a full head of steam. It was sent to the Supreme Court for review in the waning days of July, and has more than half of the valid signatures it needs to make it onto the ballot, which is more than 766,000. If it gets the chance, Vancore thinks the change to primaries would change campaigns in the state significantly.

“By opening up the primary, and letting All Voters Vote, then those politicians have to listen to the majority of people – right now they only have to listen to a very tiny minority,” Vancore said.

State estimators this week reviewed the potential fiscal impact of the proposed initiative. A representative from the Florida Division of Elections predicts there would be no fiscal impact to the state. But Okaloosa County Supervisor Paul Lux, says the cost would be felt at the local level, specifically in small or cash-strapped counties.

The extra expense, Lux said, would come from adding length or an extra page to ballots. But Lux had some other points of contention with the way the proposed amendment is drawn up.

“Where do the write-ins go? Under current statute, the law requires that write-in candidates only appear on general election ballots, yet the amendment says that all candidates qualifying for election shall be placed on the same ballots in the primary,” Lux told members of the Financial Impact Estimating Conference. “So clearly there is a difference of detail.”

Vancore confirms write-ins will indeed be placed on the same ballot in the primary.

Lux’s second issue with the amendment is, he says, it doesn’t address universal primary contests. Under Florida law, that means if the only candidates in a race are of the same party, it’s decided in the primary.

“In a universal primary contest with two, this amendment would seem to indicate that those two, instead of having the run-off in the primary and being done, would go on instead to the general election even though they were from the same party,” Lux said.

Vancore again confirms that could happen under the amendment’s language — but says that’s a good thing.

“So, if the top two vote-getters are Republicans, then they get to face off, and all the voters get to choose which Republican,” Vancore said.

Lux and the state Division of Elections indicated the amendment, should it get on the ballot and pass, would need implementing legislation. And Vancore says he welcomes that:

“There’s details that the legislature can and should work out, that respects the parties, but more importantly respects all voters.”

The proposed amendment has an enactment date of 2024, which Vancore says would give the state legislature time to openly debate implementing legislation.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.