Some of Miami’s biggest political boosters are resurrecting a failed ballot initiative to completely overhaul Florida’s primary elections, saying the financial support that eluded them four years ago has come around.
Just as they did in 2015, the non-profit All Voters Vote on Tuesday submitted petition forms to the Florida Secretary of State for review, reigniting an effort to bring “jungle primaries” to Florida and open the August elections to all of the state’s 13 million voters.
The organization could start collecting the first of some 766,000 signed petitions as soon as next week in order to force two constitutional amendments onto the 2020 ballot, one related to state campaigns and another for federal.
Gene Stearns, the Miami attorney leading the effort, says his goal is to end the hyper-partisanship created by a primary system that currently forces a majority of lawmakers in Washington and Tallahassee — most of whom represent safely red or blue districts — to govern out of fear of a challenge from their right or left flank. In a so-called “jungle” system, all candidates regardless of party run in a single primary field that is open to all voters, and the top two vote-getting candidates face off in the November general election.
“When the politicians represent a small percentage of the voters and a small percentage of voters choose the politicians, then a small percentage of the voters dictate public policy,” said Stearns. “This system is now sweeping the country and where it’s implemented it’s hated by the political parties and politicians and loved by the voters.”
The amendments, if successful, would take effect in 2024. They don’t apply to the presidential primary.
Stearns has tried this before. In 2015, All Voters Vote raised a quarter-million dollars and submitted petition forms to the state. But they failed to get enough petition signatures to qualify to make the ballot and went mostly dormant until after the 2018 midterms.
Stearns says the earlier effort was kneecapped by money problems. He says he sought support from the same donors who pushed Florida’s Fair Districts ballot initiatives in 2010 without realizing that the other leaders of that effort had already come out against the jungle primary concept, also called the “Top 2” system.
“They really put the kaibosh on our fundraising,” he said. “I think now they’ve recognized that the fair process of redistricting was simply the first step in a larger goal of making the government more representative.”
With support from Key Biscayne art collector Carlos de la Cruz and Coral Gables healthcare magnate Mike Fernandez, Stearns gathered $600,000 late last year. He says the financial commitments are there to get the petition drive the signatures needed to force a state Supreme Court review, and believes the rise in grassroots donors should also help secure the roughly 700,000 valid signatures needed by the time the February 2020 deadline to submit rolls around.
Polling has consistently shown support for opening Florida’s primaries. But even if All Voters Vote is successful in getting a “Top 2” primary onto the ballot, they’ll likely have plenty of opposition.
As soon as Florida Politics reported the details of the group’s proposal Wednesday, it was panned by consultants. Matthew Isbell, a Democratic strategist and data guru, pointed out that a jungle format in the August primary for governor would have likely forced Florida voters to choose between two Republican candidates in November’s general election — a race that was ultimately decided by less than half a percentage point between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum.
Isbell’s numbers, of course, left out more than 3 million independent voters who were not allowed to vote in the primaries that saw both Gillum and DeSantis cater to the more partisan wings of their parties. But Isbell is skeptical that independent voters will suddenly become interested in August.
Scott Arceneaux, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and senior adviser on Gillum’s gubernatorial campaign, said on Twitter that the All Voters Vote proposal doesn’t open primaries. “It gets rid of primaries.”
The political parties, meanwhile, don’t support the idea either. When Fernandez first alluded to a renewed push to change Florida’s primaries in October, the chairman at the time of the Republican Party of Florida compared the proposed system to letting McDonald’s choose the Burger King menu.
Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based consultant, is among those who believe that simply allowing independent voters to participate in the existing party primaries would be a better way of enfranchising voters. He also thinks that the fact that the Top 2 system is used in California will be an easy way for critics in a state controlled by Republicans to brand the idea as a liberal ploy even though Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, the ranking Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. House, have both strongly criticized the top-2 system in their home state.
But Stearns said it’s the parties, the politicians and special interest groups who will oppose the petition initiative, not the voters. And he said nothing is stopping Democrats and Republicans from choosing their own nominees internally before the August primaries roll around.
Steven Vancore, a consultant who polled four years ago for the group and again in February, says the broad support that existed in 2015 years ago remains “well above the 60 percent threshold” needed to pass a constitutional amendment.
“If you can’t hide in your partisan silos, maybe we’ll see more bills like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act,” he said, referring to the schools-and-gun-safety bill that passed last year with bipartisan support following the school shooting in Parkland. “It could be transformative.”