Florida should consider ‘open primaries’ so that everyone, including independents, can vote

In Florida, voters with no party affiliation cannot vote in partisan primary races.
In Florida, voters with no party affiliation cannot vote in partisan primary races. AP

Pop quiz: What is Florida’s fastest growing political party over the past decade?

If you said Democrats or Republicans, you guessed wrong. Sorry, it was a trick question. The state’s fastest growing political party is “No Party Affiliation.” More than a quarter of registered voters choose not to align with either major party, and it’s time for the state to stop disenfranchising them.

Florida currently forbids non-affiliated voters from voting in partisan primaries. Yet many states have had great success opening their primaries to give all voters a voice in important elections.

The idea is slowly gaining steam in Florida. Most recently, former GOP mega-donor Mike Fernandez endorsed it.

In this era of hyper-partisan, gerrymandered politics, the primary all too often decides the ultimate winner.

On Election Day this month, 22 of Florida’s 27 U.S. House races were won by more than 10 percentage points or were unopposed. Only the remaining five races were remotely competitive. The real race, then, was in the August primary. Depending on the partisan slant of the district, the Democrat or Republican who won in August coasted to victory in November.

The same was true of most state legislative races. Indeed, in the State House, more than half of the seats were won by at least 20 points or were unopposed. Even though all those primaries were decisive, non-affiliated voters were denied a chance to help choose their representatives.

This closed system contributes to the deep partisan divide we see in Florida and throughout the nation. Primary voters tend toward the extremes of the parties. Republicans who vote in primaries are more conservative as a group, and Democrats are more liberal. Candidates know this and cater to their bases. Moderates, meanwhile, struggle to pass tests of ideological purity.

That’s especially true in “safe” districts. If the Republican is sure to win in November, the party can nominate someone who will never compromise on conservative principles.

But if independents could participate, there would be a large pool of voters that might find moderation appealing. More elected officials might work across the aisle on tough issues without fear of being primaried from the left or the right.

Opponents of open primaries point out that the political parties are private clubs, and it’s not for the state to dictate who can choose the club’s nominees. That’s for registered party members to decide.

That would be fine if they truly were just private clubs that ran their own elections. In fact, the parties like having the veneer of a democratic process. All taxpayers pay for those partisan primaries, and Democrats and Republicans receive privileged access to the ballot. It’s eminently fair for the state to ask that all voters be allowed to participate in return.

If the two major parties want to limit participation to only their members, they absolutely can do that. They just shouldn’t expect everyone else to pay for it and pretend it is a legitimately democratic process.

Open primaries in other states take many forms, including allowing independents to vote in partisan races. California has a top-two primary in which all candidates appear on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters, even if they are in the same party, advance to the general election.

There are pros and cons Florida can explore, but the conversation should start from the premise that everyone deserves a vote, even in a primary.