More than a quarter of Florida voters are disenfranchised – and it’s not who you might think

voting booth
Some voters want more access to the voting booth in Florida's primary elections/Wikimedia Commons Photo

About 3.5 million Floridians were disenfranchised this past election –  and we’re not talking about convicted felons.

They are “No Party Affiliation” voters – people who don’t want to register as Democrat or Republican. They are Florida’s fastest growing political group – more than a quarter of the state’s registered voters.

Florida law locks them out of primary elections, including the races for key leadership roles (governor, U.S. Senate) this past August.

Because the state employs a “closed primary” system, independent and No Party Affiliation (NPA) voters are banned from participating.

Only nine other states in the country have a similar closed primary system, which  “might be the worst of all options,” says New College of Florida associate political scientist professor Frank Alcock.

Steve Hough, who heads a grassroots group called Florida Fair and Open Primaries, agrees:

“With 3.5 million independents, we could actually have an influence on who the nominees are in future election cycles,” Hough says.

Hough’s group is working to get a state Constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot that would allow Floridians to adopt a “top-two” system of primaries.

Under that system, any registered voter could pick their top two choices for offices like governor without having to be registered to the Democratic or Republican parties. The top two candidates who get the highest percentage of votes overall then advance to the general election – even if they are from the same party. The “top two” system is in place now in California, Washington and Nebraska.

The Phoenix has learned that there may be another organized effort in Florida besides Hough’s to push for open primaries. It  could be announced in the next few months.

One problem with Florida’s closed primary system is that candidates are pushed to be more left or more right to appeal to their political bases. This year’s gubernatorial election between right-wing Ron DeSantis and left-wing Andrew Gillum is one example.

When primaries are confined to just two parties, more centrist candidates don’t get a chance to move forward to the general election.

“We see more polarized races, more tensions, more hostility,” says Amos Miers, a Pinellas County Democrat and Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention. “Could more voices in primaries help address that? Could open primaries give us candidates worth people’s consideration that go beyond straight party-line, down-ballot voting? I think open primaries would have a positive effect on voter participation and the quality of our elected officials.”

A poll last year by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling agency showed that 70 percent of Floridians support an open primary for all state and federal offices.

Popularity alone doesn’t mean it will get to the ballot in 2020, however.  Deep pockets are required, says Tallahassee-based political strategist Steve Vancore, who estimates that it costs a minimum of $3.5 million these days to get a measure on the ballot.

Hough acknowledges that he’s going to need a sugar daddy of sorts to get the measure on the ballot, and says he was excited to read recent comments by former Miami-based Republican fundraiser Mike Fernandez, who told the Miami Herald last month that he supports the concept of opening Florida’s primary elections.

“My efforts are already pushing the cart in that direction,” Fernandez told the Phoenix in early November when asked if he is considering funding an effort to do just that.

“As an independent voter, I am one of the almost 40 percent of the electorate in Florida who, by law, are not allowed to vote in the state’s primary,” Fernandez added in an email. “Yet, the state uses funds collected from people like me to pay for the primary election process. It’s perfectly reflective of a system of ‘taxation without representation’”

Philip Levine, the center-left former mayor of Miami Beach who finished third in the Democratic primary for governor, says he doesn’t like the way closed primaries confine candidates to certain political positions.

“If you’re running in a district which is completely blue, you can absolutely win as a progressive,” he says, referring specifically to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in a New York congressional district last June. “But if you are running in a purple environment, you better be inclusive and capture the center.”

The zeal to change the current political system is opposed by the chairs of both the Republican and Democratic parties in Florida.

Though officials with the Florida Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment, Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said last year when campaigning for the position that she didn’t think that nonparty members should determine the party’s nominees, and instead said, “We are going to encourage as many NPAs as possible to become Democrats and vote in the primary.”

On the Republican side, Christian Ziegler, a Sarasota Republican Committeeman, led the effort last year to get a resolution passed by the Republican Party of Florida that put the state party on record as opposing open primaries.  He says opening primaries to all voters “would be a disaster” and would encourage political gamesmanship.

He posits a scenario that scares him and other members of the major political parties: In his nightmare, Democrats could “flood” the Republican Party’s primary election with liberal voters to help ensure that the Republicans nominate their weakest candidate. That way, he said, Democrats would “increase their chances of victory in the general election.”

Tampa-based talk show host Dan Maduri, 33, is one voter who is in favor of opening Florida’s primaries.

He registered as a non-party-affiliated voter when he turned 18, but succumbed to re-registering with a major political party this past summer so he could participate in the primary.

“I got tired of not being able to cast a vote, so I reluctantly joined (a party),” he says.

Amos Miers, the Pinellas Democrat and Bernie Sanders delegate, said the time’s ripe for a change in Florida politics.

“With the two-party system losing members more each day to NPAs,” he asks, “how long will we allow closed primaries with fewer members of our voters making decisions on who our choices are in a general election?”

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

12 COMMENTS

  1. There was a centrist gubernatorial candidate on the Florida ballot this year, Darcy Richardson of the Reform Party. But if the top-two system passed, candidates like Darcy would not be on the November ballot.

    It is not true that Nebraska has a top-two system. Nebraska has semi-closed primaries for state executive office, congress, and president. The only reason anyone ever says Nebraska has a top-two system is because it has completely non-partisan elections for legislature, with no party labels on the ballot, but that is not the same thing as top-two.

    Also there are 13 states with closed congressional primaries, not 9 as this article says.

  2. These are PARTY PREFERENCE PRIMARIES for major parties to select their candidate for the general election. The GENERAL ELECTION is when everyone can run and vote for any candidate they prefer. As a Republican Party Member with a platform I substantially agree with, I certainly have no claim to select any other party’s nominee, and visa versa. If you want to choose a party nominee, join that party or if you choose no party, vote for whomever you choose in the general election.

    • Thank you Dennis Baxley. I agree and as I recall, Republicans voting in Democratic Primaries and Democrats voting in Republican primaries was the reason Florida chose a closed primary system. I am a Democrat btw. People do not seem to understand the purpose of a Party’s election is to choose the leader of the Party, aka, their nominee for POTUS if the winner accepts the nomination.

  3. No mention was made of local elections in which closed primary rules mean that one party’s nominee can get elected at the primary, period. A minority of voters may elect a County Commissioner or constitutional officer because the other party offers no challenger. Having the top-two plan in effect would allow all voters the option of choosing in a general election. In Marion County, where Democrats are not strong, there are County Commissioners who routinely get elected in the closed primary by Republicans only. That is hardly a referendum from the whole electorate.

  4. NPA2022 is the future. Because of the party politics holding us at bay. We want our State and our country back FROM THE POLITICIANS. NPA Florida can help to bring all 3.5 Million together. NPA Unity!

    • NPA is not the way of the future. NPA makes sure your voice is never heard. That is why, decades ago, people decided to form voting clubs, called ‘political party’. They pay money and dues to belong to that club for the privilege of taking a close look at a few candidates, vet them. then choose from those vetted who the club will support in the upcoming general election.
      NPA is a choice not to participate in a political party’s decisions. The Parties decide by holding an election for their party. It is called the Democratic PARTY PRIMARY ELECTION, (PPE) held on the same day the Republicans choose the leader of their Party and hold their election, the Republican PARTY PRIMARY ELECTION (PPE).

      NPA and everyone eligible to vote choose between everyone on the GENERAL ELECTION ballot. All political parties registered in the State and all Independents registered in the State are printed on the ballot.

      If NPA want to hold a primary, they need to form a Party, say, the ‘OpenMind’ Party or “OM Party”. The OM Party Primary Election would be held on the same day as the PPE for the Democratic Party Primary and Republican Primary.

  5. This guy is a shill for the Democrats and Republicans. Don’t buy into this deceitful rhetoric about disenfranchisement. Disenfranchisement through a reduction in choices is exactly what this shill wants. NPAs know exactly what they are doing and would register with a party to vote in a primary if they cared to do so. The Top-two fallacy is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Top-two is horrible for democracy and republican representation. Top-two is a stalking horse for a totalitarian distuption of our electoral process and should be tossed on the ash heap of history, just as the popular election of senators and the argument against the electoral college should be. These people who propose and support top-two are enemies of freedom and seek to limit the ability of citizens to choose their own representation.

  6. Yes, I did the same, registered as a Democrat last summer to be able to vote in the primary. It’s ridiculous. So far as a flood of ill-wishers voting for the other party’s weakest candidate, that is nonsense. It’s the kind of scenario high schoolers debate in a social studies class. I suspect the number of cases involved in such a scenario would about equal the number of voter fraud case, barely a handful. People are too selfish to waste a vote this way, too simple to attempt a manipulation, and too concerned for their own candidate to abandon their first choice.

  7. I am very upset that our freedom to not register with either Democrats or Republicans eliminates us from the primaries. If a registered Republican chooses to bote fro a Democrat nothing happens to their vote! Or vice versa do why would any boter be eliminated just because they express their right to decide at the polls instead of registering as one or the other! There are good snd. Bad ones on both sides! .Just because I dont pick one or the other does not mean I will write in my own name to vote ! That is LUDICROUS! I cannot ever remember being told I would be blocked from the primaries ! Do they kust throw out my ballot after I take the time to vote ?
    Taxation with out representation is simply wrong and must be changed. .this messing around with voters is absolutuly suppression and I want to know just WHO THINKS THEY HAVE SUCH A RIGHT TO SUPPRESS ANY VOTERS RIGHT TO CHOOSE WHO THEY WANT ! ?

  8. Closed primaries is little more than another clever way to suppress voting … the more voting is open to legal registered voters, the stronger our country will be … it’s simple … voting becomes complicated when legislators construct ways to keep voters from casting their ballots …

  9. I switch parties every chance I get, to vote for the “least of 2 evils” in the most important primary. Usually it is the republican primary, but sometimes the democrats have an important choice to make. I figure that if I make it hard for the registration people to keep switching me back and forth, eventually they will see the light and get behind open primaries. Sorry to see that republicans oppose open primaries. We would all gain from such a move. May the best person win, not the party. Next we need to get rid of the electoral college, it was designed for a time when your average voter was uneducated and gullible and scary. Now we are supposedly all educated and harder to fool. The electoral college was meant to be the best smartest people who would vote for the best candidate, not necessarily of their party. It has been corrupted by the parties; now it is just a fake rubber stamp. After that, we should do a presidential runoff 2 weeks after the election between the top two, like the French do. Hard for me to admit that the French have a better system, but it is true. That way we could all have our protest vote, libertarian, green, socialist, whatever, and still get the lesser of two evils at the runoff 2 weeks later. And no more butterfly ballots; how about you democrats actually look at the ballot BEFORE the election to see if it needs to be fixed, not after thousands of votes are incorrectly recorded.

  10. This is disrespectful to people who are actually disenfranchised. All independents have to do is check a box as to which parties primary they want to vote in, a month prior to the election. A person’s official party status can mean as much or as little to their identity as they want it to. That NPAs are unwilling to do this shows they don’t really want to vote in primaries that much.

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