Florida Politics

Miami businessman’s push to change Florida elections a ‘gimmick,’ Democratic Party says

Mike Fernandez has spent millions supporting a petition effort to change Florida’s primary elections.
Mike Fernandez has spent millions supporting a petition effort to change Florida’s primary elections. WLRN file photo

The Florida Democratic Party on Saturday took an official position against a proposed constitutional amendment that would abolish the state’s partisan August primary elections in favor of a system that forces all candidates for state office to run in a single race, regardless of party affiliation.

Hundreds of party activists voted in Orlando during the Florida Democratic Party’s state convention to pass a resolution that calls the All Voters Vote proposal — bankrolled by South Florida healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez — a “gimmick” that “would increase the influence of big-spending special interests and billionaires.”

Florida’s major political parties have previously signaled their opposition to the proposal. But Saturday’s vote foreshadows the campaign to come should the Florida Supreme Court — currently reviewing the language of the proposed amendment — allow it on the 2020 ballot.

“We of course are disappointed but not surprised that party insiders oppose letting all voters vote and having a say in our democracy,” said attorney Glenn Burhans, chairman of the All Voters Vote political committee.

Florida’s primary elections are currently closed, meaning Democratic and Republican nominees are chosen in August by registered Democratic and Republican voters, who alone vote in their parties’ respective elections. Save certain special situations, none of the 3.5 million voters who lack party affiliation in Florida participate in primary elections for state office.

The proposed All Voters Vote amendment would change that by creating just one primary election for all races for governor, the Legislature and the Cabinet, with Democratic and Republican candidates appearing on the same ballot. All of Florida’s roughly 13.5 million registered voters could participate.

The proposed amendment would take effect in 2024. It would not apply to federal races for Congress or president.

Fernandez, a former Republican who renounced his party affiliation, told the Miami Herald last year that Florida’s existing primary elections create politicians more beholden to their political parties than the people of Florida. Fernandez, by far the biggest benefactor of the movement, has spent more than $6 million on a petition drive that is on the verge of hitting the state threshold to be placed on the 2020 ballot.

Attorney General Ashley Moody, in a brief filed with the Florida Supreme Court, recently called the proposed amendment “misleading.”

State Rep. Evan Jenne, co-chairman of the Florida Democratic Party’s Resolutions Committee, said in an interview that had the proposed primary system been in place in August of 2018 — when five Democrats and only two Republicans sought the position for governor — the two candidates to move on to the general election in November would have both been Republicans.

“I’m not a fan of a primary system where the general would have ended up with [Republican] Adam Putnam vs. [Republican] Ron DeSantis, and the Democrat wouldn’t even have been present,” said Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

Saturday’s vote came during the Florida Democratic Party’s bi-annual state convention, held at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista. Roughly 1,500 party delegates voted on a package of 15 resolutions, according to the party. All passed.

The package of resolutions that passed included a position backing statehood for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.