Demanding voice in primary, no-party voters in Florida switch to party labels

A voter arrives to vote in the Pembroke Pines municipal rlections and the Republican primary at the Broward County Southwest Regional Library, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012.
A voter arrives to vote in the Pembroke Pines municipal rlections and the Republican primary at the Broward County Southwest Regional Library, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Tens of thousands of nonpartisan voters in Florida are suddenly Republicans and Democrats after scrambling to meet Tuesday’s deadline so they can vote in the upcoming presidential primary.

With much higher enthusiasm in both parties than there was four years ago, those voters had until 5 p.m. Tuesday to join a party or risk being silenced in the March 15 primary.

Voters who switched parties at a Pinellas County elections office in downtown St. Petersburg demanded a voice in a highly unpredictable presidential nominating process.

“I’m tired of what the Democrats are doing,” said G.J. Carnegie, 79, of St. Petersburg, a lifelong Democrat who switched parties to vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary. “He says what he means, and I think he does what he says. We need someone in there like that to straighten things up.”

At the same elections office, Amber Kingsbury, 23, and Justin LaBier, 28, took the region’s more popular path, switching from no party affiliation to Democrat.

Both are Vermont natives who want to vote for that state’s senator, Bernie Sanders.

“I agree with everything he says. He’s all for equality and free college. I’m hoping to go to college. It’s so expensive,” Kingsbury said.

“I want free healthcare,” LaBier said. “Canada has it. Why not us?” He said he has not voted before because, “I never felt like my vote had any meaning.”

In Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county, nearly 10,000 voters switched parties since Jan. 1. The county elections office reports 9,268 changes with 1,950 switching from NPA to Democrat and 1,834 switching from NPA to Republican.

Most of the rest switched between the two parties or bucked the statewide trend by re-registering as unaffiliated.

The Miami Herald's Patricia Mazzei describes the state of the presidential campaign in Florida, and what, or who, is getting voters excited in 2016.

In Tampa Bay, more unaffiliated voters are joining the Democratic Party over the Republican Party.

Since Jan. 1 in Pinellas, 1,435 voters have changed from NPA, or no party affiliation, to Democrat, and 1,263 have changed from NPA to Republican.

In another sign of increased enthusiasm, Pinellas said more people have registered in the past six weeks than in the same period leading up to the two previous presidential primaries in 2008 and 2012.

The county has registered 4,104 voters during the period, compared to 3,131 before the 2008 primary and 3,048 before the 2012 primary.

Across the bay in Hillsborough, the numbers are smaller but the trend is tilted more in the Democrats’ favor. Since Jan. 1, 895 Hillsborough voters have switched from NPA to Democrat and 662 have switched from NPA to the GOP.

Broward County, like Miami-Dade a Democratic stronghold, did not respond to requests for its party-switching data.

Florida is the largest of 13 states that still have a system known as a closed primary in which only Republicans and Democrats can cast ballots in their parties’ nominating contests.

The closed system is coming under renewed criticism as unaffiliated voters make up the fastest-growing bloc in Florida.

Many are young people alienated from the traditional two-party system, some of whom did not immediately realize that by shunning both major parties, they couldn’t influence the presidential nominating system.

Election supervisors used social media to remind voters of Tuesday’s deadline to switch parties.

“To quote Elvis, ‘It’s now or never,’ ” tweeted Pasco County elections chief Brian Corley.

On Twitter, Hillsborough Supervisor Craig Latimer reported “lots of ‘thank yous’ and ‘that was easy’ ” from walk-in voters registering or switching.

The League of Women Voters of Florida saw it as a hopeful sign.

“We’re pleased that they’re doing this,” League President Pamela Goodman of Palm Beach told the Herald/Times. “We want voters to do everything they can to be enfranchised to vote.”

In Tallahassee, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho for the first time sent a mass mailing of postcards to all 38,000 NPA voters.

Sancho said more than 2,000 have switched to one of the two major parties since Jan. 1, with a majority favoring the Democratic Party. Leon is a heavily Democratic county with more than 100,000 college students at two major state universities and a state college.

Every year in Tallahassee, legislators who oppose the closed primary system file bills to switch to open primaries, but the idea never goes anywhere, and both political parties favor the status quo of having only the most committed partisans pick their nominees for federal, state and local office.

The 2016 versions were filed by two Democrats, Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando and Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, and neither has been heard in any legislative committees.

Times staff writer Lara Cerri and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or(850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.