Closed Primary Elections Draw Scrutiny
As Florida's population grows and more residents shun traditional party affiliations, voters are befuddled, if not angry, about the state's closed-primary system, including the use of write-in candidates, three local elections supervisors testified Wednesday.
“When it comes to the primary election, our voters are confused,” Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told the state Constitution Revision Commission's Ethics and Elections Committee.
Many new voters move to Florida from other states with more open voting systems as opposed to Florida's closed primaries, which are restricted to voters who are registered with parties. Florida is one of nine states using a closed-primary system.
“We have people coming from all over the country, and they bring with them the experiences that they have had and what they know,” Snipes says. “It's difficult for them to understand.”
Adding to the confusion is that more voters are opting not to join the Republicans or Democrats but register with “no party affiliation” or in a host of minor parties. No-party affiliation is the fastest growing segment of the electorate and is particularly popular with young people, with more than one out of every four Florida voters falling into that category.
But no-party voters can't vote in Democratic or GOP primaries, although they can cast their ballots in non-partisan primary races and in general elections.
Florida has a provision that opens primaries to all voters when all of the candidates are from the same party and there is no general-election opposition. But it has been undermined by a state Division of Elections ruling, upheld by the courts, that says the presence of a general election write-in candidate closes primaries, even if only one party has a primary election.
The net effect of the so-called “write-in candidate loophole” is that the primary winner ends up as the only name on the general election ballot, virtually assuring a win.
Asked how widely the write-in candidate loophole was being used to close primaries, Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards says her “educated guess” was that it could occur in approximately 10 out of 67 counties in an election cycle, although some counties had more of a “propensity” for using it.
“It's not every day, every place. But it does occur,” Edwards says.
Snipes said the use of write-in candidates in Broward, the county with second-highest voter registration, is fairly common.
“What I see happen quite often is the write-in candidate is put into the race as a tool to close the race down,” Snipes says, saying many write-in candidates even drop out before the general election.
Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford says the write-in candidate process can get voters “amped up” if they believe it is violating the fairness of the election, although it is legally justified.
“At some point, you have to question what effect does that have on the electorate writ large. Does it increase confidence? Does it decrease confidence?” Stafford says. “We're in the business, particularly here in Florida, of trying increase confidence in the election process.”
Edwards saya the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, which represents all 67 elections supervisors, would not take a position on proposed constitutional changes for the primary system, since it would be a conflict to advocate or oppose measures where supervisors had to count ballots.
But all three elections supervisors testified resolving voter confusion or complaints about the primary system could increase voter participation in the primaries. Edwards noted only 24 percent of voters turned out for last year's primary election, while 75 percent participated in the general election.
The Constitution Revision Commission, which has the ability to put constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot, is already considering one measure to address the controversy over write-in candidates closing primaries.
Sherry Plymale, a member of the commission's Ethics and Elections Committee, advanced an amendment this week from Palm Beach County State Attorney David Aronberg that would let all voters participate in a primary if there is no general election-opposition or if the only opposition comes from write-in candidates.
Steven Hough of Florida Fair and Open Primaries talked to the committee about his proposal (700575) to change Florida's closed-primary system to a “top-two” system where all voters could participate in primary elections.
Patterned after election systems now used in California and Washington, Hough said the revision would place all candidates for an office in the primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election.
For Hough's proposal to advance, it would have to be sponsored by a Constitution Revision Commission member and win support from at least nine other members. It could also be embodied in a proposal filed by commission members, who have until Oct. 31 to submit their proposed constitutional amendments.