Open Florida Primary Proposal Debated
An effort to let voters decide if they want open primary elections advanced Friday, but moving to such a “top-two” system continued to draw questions from members of the state Constitution Revision Commission.
Commission member Bill Schifino, a Tampa attorney, initially proposed allowing unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in Republican or Democratic primaries. But Schifino altered the proposal (Proposal 62) to put all candidates seeking the same office --- if there are more than two candidates --- into a single primary regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote-getters would run in the general election.
The top-two proposal, already in use by California, Nebraska and Washington, would also allow state parties to list on the ballot the candidate they “endorse.”
Schifino said he continues to push the idea of an open-primary because of comments commissioners heard throughout the state, where 27 percent of voters are registered without any party and the majority of millennials are registering with no party affiliation.
“It is inevitable, we know where this is heading,” Schifino said. “The predictions are that within five years the NPAs will outnumber or at least equal the Ds and Rs. So the question is, how do we engage them in the primary voting process.”
Schifino’s revised proposal was approved Friday in a 6-3 vote by the Constitution Revision Commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee. The commission, which meets once every 20 years, is reviewing proposed constitutional amendments that could go before voters in November.
The top-two proposal measure next is slated to go to the commission’s General Provisions Committee. Still, several members said Friday more work will be needed to keep their support.
Commissioner Brecht Heuchan, the founder of a political consulting firm in Tallahassee, said the proposal could have the “amazing” outcomes supporters predict. But he said the changes will be exploited by political insiders.
“The political operatives in our state … the lengths in which they will go for the efforts of their clients, they will use the law in a legal fashion to create an environment that is in the best interest of their client,” Heuchan said. “That’s what they do. I know that’s what they do because I used to do that.”
While commissioners Frank Kruppenbacher and Chris Smith said they have problems with the current proposal, they would like to see work continue on it. They pointed to public support.
“This is something that was brought up in every stop on the road,” said Smith, a former Democratic state senator from Fort Lauderdale. “I’ll hold my nose and vote for it today, so the conversation can continue. But I disagree with it, and don’t like it. If it makes it to the floor, I’ll probably be voting against it. But I don’t want to end the conversation today, especially with us going back on the road.”
Nebraska uses top-two primary state legislative contests, which are all nonpartisan. The Public Policy Institute of California released a study in December that found strong support for its state’s 7-year-old open-primary system.
“I think this is a wake-up call for (the parties) and we have a couple of months to see if they wake up,” said Constitution Revision Commission member Sherry Plymale, a former Republican Party of Florida vice chairwoman from Palm City, in voting to support the proposal on Friday.
Florida Republican Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, a state House member from Spring Hill, called the proposal “horrible” when asked for comment after the meeting.
“While the Republican Party of Florida has no official stance on this yet, I can say with confidence that this proposal would be wholeheartedly rejected by party leaders statewide,” Ingoglia said. "I don't think Republicans want Democrats picking our nominee, nor do I think Democrats want Republicans picking their nominee. That's akin to Burger King picking McDonald's menu items and vice versa.”