In February, I worked with my colleagues on the Miami-Dade Democratic Party Executive Committee to pass a resolution to change state party rules and allow independent voters (NPAs) to vote in Democratic primaries.
It passed with 80 percent support. That’s not surprising. Polls show supermajority support for open primaries among Republicans, Democrats and independents in Florida.
Parties in Brevard and two other counties quickly followed and endorsed the resolution. The Florida Progressive Democratic Caucus and the Young Democrats endorsed it, as well. We were on our way to majority support for a vote at the party convention on Oct. 13 and building a durable bridge to the 3.6 million independents in Florida that would help us defeat Donald Trump in 2020.
But bridge construction has been suspended, and we can’t blame Republicans. Rather, the state Democratic Party leadership and its hostility to change is at fault.
In August, state leaders told the Miami-Dade chair that the resolution didn’t have a chance of passing unless it was amended. So the measure was amended. There was no discussion among membership, no coordination with other county parties that had passed the resolution or were considering doing so. No one outside of the handful of party leaders participating was notified.
The organizers of the effort, myself included, received a phone call after the decision was finalized. The rest of the party membership only learned of it after it was circulated on social media.
The amended resolution still deceptively is titled an open primary, though it is anything but. It now calls for the party to adopt same-day voter registration rules that would allow independent voters to vote in the Democratic primary on Election Day if — and only if — they change their registration to Democrat at the polls.
It’s an insult to independents. They are independent for a reason. It’s not clear the resolution is even legal. The Supreme Court has ruled parties have a First Amendment right to allow independent voters to participate in their primary elections. There is no legal authority for parties to ignore state voter-registration processes. Party leaders want to say, “We passed an open primaries resolution,” knowing that it will alienate independents and cannot be implemented. How cynical can you get?
What does this say about the current state of Democratic Party leaders that they would gut a powerful resolution and undercut their own membership by disallowing meaningful debate on an opportunity to build a brighter future for the party and for Florida?
Democrats have a 5 percent registration advantage in Florida; yet it’s the Republicans who have significant majorities in the House and Senate and have held the governorship for 20 years. The status quo hasn’t been working for Florida Democrats.
Many believe we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change that by opening the Florida Democratic Party primary election to unaffiliated voters.
The number of independents has exploded in our state and is growing faster than either party. About 27 percent of Florida voters are unaffiliated. But they are shut out of primary elections, even though their tax dollars pay for them. Independents are the deciding factor in every general election, but since neither party reaches out to them until just before the general election, they swing back and forth between them.
In 2016, unaffiliated voters in Florida went for Trump over Clinton 47 percent to 42 percent. Two years later, they went for Gillum over DeSantis 54 percent to 44 percent.
Independents are aligned with Democrats on many key issues, from immigration reform to same-sex marriage; 50 percent of millennials, 30 percent of African Americans, and 37 percent of Latinos are unaffiliated.
These are natural Democratic Party constituencies and they want to vote. That’s why Democratic parties in six other states, from California to Oklahoma, will be holding open primaries in 2020 despite their states’ closed-primary laws. Bringing unaffiliated voters into the process early would give us an advantage that will pay dividends in elections for years to come.
Our party should be sending a clear message to independent voters that we value their participation, rather than demanding they “join our party if you want to vote.” Wrapping a change of voter-registration rules in a wrapper and calling it an open primary won’t fool anyone. It’s a brand of politics that has driven many Floridians to declare their independence from the political parties in the first place.
There is still time to build a bridge between Democrats and independents in Florida. If the Democratic Party wants to continue to claim that it stands for inclusion, participation, diversity and progress, it’s time our selection process reflects those values.
Dr. Jeffrey Solomon is a healthcare provider, Miami-Dade Democratic Party organizer and former Democratic Party candidate for Florida House of Representatives, District 115.