Florida Politics

Florida AG steps into fight over amendment on open primaries, says it’s misleading

A proposed constitutional amendment would replace Florida’s closed party primaries with primaries open to all voters, regardless of party, for certain statewide offices.
A proposed constitutional amendment would replace Florida’s closed party primaries with primaries open to all voters, regardless of party, for certain statewide offices. dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody will argue against a proposed constitutional amendment that would open up the state’s primary elections to independent voters.

Calling the ballot initiative “misleading,” Moody said the proposal that could go before voters in 2020 “does away with primaries as Floridians know them.” She will be arguing in court that the amendment should not appear on the ballot.

“The proposed ballot language does not open Florida primaries, it eliminates them, and gives party bosses — not voters — sole discretion over the party candidate nominating process,” Moody said in a statement. “This proposed summary does not disclose that fact to voters and would undo a system set up to prevent political corruption and closed-door deal making.

The proposal would create just one primary election for all races for governor, the Legislature and the Cabinet, with Democratic and Republican candidates appearing on the same ballot. Any registered voters could participate.

The top two vote getters would then face off in the general election.

That’s generally how it works for the state’s municipal races and many county commission races in Florida. For state races, however, primaries are limited to members of each party.

Supporters of the effort say the current system, which is only used in a handful of states, leads to more polarized candidates. Those supporters include former GOP mega-donor Mike Fernandez, who quit the party after President Donald Trump was elected.

“The parties over time have become much more polarized,” said Glenn Burhans, chairman of All Voters Vote, which is leading the amendment effort. “We’re seeing much more divisive rhetoric and divisive policy fights, and over time people have become tired with that.”

Fewer and fewer voters are registering as Democrats or Republicans. In last year’s primary, about 27 percent of the state’s registered voters couldn’t participate because they did not claim a party affiliation.

Steve Vancore, an adviser to All Voters Vote, noted that for most races in Florida’s Legislature, the outcomes are decided in the primaries.

In the House, for example, at least 100 of the 120 seats are not competitive in the general election, leaving candidates to only worry about securing their base.

“In those 100 seats, the majority of voters are excluded from casting a ballot for their next state representative,” Vancore said. “That’s wrong, and that’s what’s causing polarity.”

Both parties are adamantly opposed to the idea, viewing open primaries as a fundamental threat to their control over the political process.

Moody, a Republican, called the proposal “misleading” because the proposed amendment says it doesn’t prohibit political parties from nominating their own candidates for the primary. In essence, the parties on their own could pick the candidates who would run in the primary.

That is confusing and would still allow “political parties to select candidates through a closed process,” Moody argued.

“The primary process was adopted to eliminate the good-ole-boys clubs of yesteryear, when party brass in smoke-filled rooms chose the party’s candidates,” Moody said in a statement.

The parties have a First Amendment right to select their own candidates, which is why that language was included in the amendment, Burhans said. What the amendment does is prohibit those closed-door primaries from being funded by taxpayers.

“Her argument essentially is, ‘I’m against allowing all voters to vote and I’m perfectly comfortable perpetrating a system where 3.7 million registered Florida voters can’t vote,” Burhans said. “That’s surprising to me that an elected official would come out and take that position.”

Moody will argue her case before the Florida Supreme Court, which will ultimately decide whether the amendment is clear and deserves to go before voters.

If so, it’s likely to go before voters on the 2020 ballot. Organizers have already collected more than 700,000 verified signatures, just 66,000 shy of the requirement to make it on the ballot.

The proposal is the fourth proposed change to the state’s Constitution that Moody has opposed this year, which is a sharp departure from her predecessor, Pam Bondi, who seldom came out against ballot initiatives.

She’s taken stances against a proposed recreational marijuana amendment, a proposed ban on assault rifles and a proposal that would allow Floridians to choose their electricity provider.

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