Something interesting is happening with Florida voters.
More and more people are becoming unwilling to identify with either of the two major political parties and are choosing instead to register as No Party Affiliate (NPA).
One possible reason could be that the two parties are becoming increasingly extreme, rigid and fractured. Factions form within the parties and intolerance of other views become the norm. Voters who belonged to a party for many years stayed in it out of habit or loyalty — even when they no longer felt welcome or comfortable.
That may have reached a tipping point. According to the Florida Division of Elections website, at the end of August 2015 the voter registration rolls show those choosing to register with no party affiliation have reached 2.9 million voters. Compare that to 20 years ago. In 1995 there were 519,890 registered NPAs representing about 8 percent of the electorate.
While NPAs account for 24 percent of the state’s registered voters, Democrats claim 38 percent, Republicans hold 35 percent, and 3 percent belong to numerous minor parties.
One of every four voters registered in Florida don’t identify with any political party. It’s even more remarkable considering Florida is a closed primary state, which keeps NPAs out of primary elections. Under current law, only when a candidate has no opposition from outside their party can all voters cast a vote in that race in a primary election.
Here’s an example: In a state Senate race there are two Republican candidates and no Democrat or minor party candidate. Under current law, since the winner of the primary will be the elected representative, the primary would be open to all registered voters in that district.
Of course there is a loophole. And it gets capitalized on in nearly every instance.
If a write-in candidate files for that seat, it closes the primary, effectively shutting out the potential majority of the voters who would be represented by the primary winner.
There are very few qualifications for a write-in candidate, thereby making it simple to recruit someone to file the paperwork. There is no qualifying fee, no residency requirement, their name doesn’t appear on the ballot and they don’t have to campaign. Just a blank line on the ballot is enough to close the primary.
There have been numerous bipartisan attempts to remove the “write-in loophole” — including one by state Sen. Dave Aronberg and me — but they never get a floor vote for passage. The parties want to maintain the status quo.
Once again, citizens are offering up a fix.
A nonpartisan organization, tired of partisanship — All Voters Vote, Inc. — want to make candidates appeal to a broader electorate, including the state’s 2.9 million NPAs that are currently irrelevant in state primaries.
Their proposed amendment, if passed, would allow all registered voters to vote in primaries for Congress, the state Legislature, governor and Cabinet regardless of the party affiliation of the voters or candidates.
The candidate who receives the most votes and the runner-up would advance to the general election. If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes in the primary — he or she wins the election without a runoff. If the measure makes it to the ballot, it needs 60 percent of the votes to pass. A poll taken over the summer shows 65-70 percent support for the initiative.
Until legislative or constitutional changes occur, NPAs do have an option available to them. Any registered voter in Florida can change their registration to vote in a primary but have to do it 29 days before the primary election.
The deadline to change party registration is February 16 to vote in the March 15 Florida Presidential Preference Primary. The deadline is August 1 for the August 30 primary election for congressional and legislative races.
After the primary election you can change your registration back. While not ideal, it’s worth the effort to participate. Just imagine — with 2.9 million NPA votes at stake — it could make a huge difference.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.