TALLAHASSEE — You, the people of Florida, spoke loudly and clearly.
You said you wanted more of a say in choosing your elected leaders in open primaries, where a lot more voters could influence state elections.
That was 21 years ago.
It was 1998 when nearly two-thirds of voters (64 percent) passed Amendment 11, which unlocked the state’s system of closed primaries to allow all voters to cast a ballot in a primary if only one party offered candidates. The amendment passed in 53 counties — in Broward, it got 71 percent of the vote.
But this is Florida, where the will of the people is easily thwarted.
Reform was a mirage. The state ruled in 2000 that a write-in candidate — often a political stooge recruited by one side and with no chance of winning — can close a primary and shut out millions of voters.
Two decades later, the closed primary system and its cynical write-in loophole lives on.
It endures in Florida and eight other states, even as the fastest-growing segment of the electorate are voters with no party affiliation, who now make up 27 percent of the statewide total and actually outnumber both parties’ voters in some legislative districts.
But a new movement is underway.
The political committee, All Voters Vote, launched a 2020 ballot initiative this week that will allow all voters, regardless of party, to vote in primary elections for Congress, governor, Cabinet and the Legislature.
All candidates for the same offices would appear on the same primary ballot and the two top vote-getters would face off in November. The notorious write-in loophole would finally disappear if 60 percent of voters approve the proposal.
“The current system has failed the people of Florida,” said Eugene Stearns, a Miami lawyer and a leader of the open primary movement. “It’s a garden variety screwing of the average citizen.”
The group is also led by Coral Gables health care executive Mike Fernandez and Miami businessman Carlos de la Cruz Jr.
It will come as no surprise that both political parties defend the status quo. They’re likely to have support from like-minded special interest groups who thrive under the current system.
Open primaries could be the death knell for two already-weak political parties.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Joe Gruters, a state senator from Sarasota and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “We organize as political parties for the sole purpose of electing like-minded candidates. We shouldn’t have any interference … We feel that we should have the right to elect our own candidates.”
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said the open primary proposal is bad for democracy because it could produce two Republicans or two Democrats for the same office. “That undermines the democratic system itself,” Rizzo said.
The closed system perpetuates a cycle where a single-issue group — like the National Rifle Association — can have exaggerated influence if it takes sides between, say, two Republicans in a primary for a state House seat where turnouts historically are very low.
One candidate might be an “A-rated” NRA candidate; the opponent may be a more moderate GOP candidate who lives in fear of being “primaried,” which in today’s Florida means being attacked from the right in an election decided by as few voters as possible.
Open primaries would allow Democratic, independent and minor-party voters to vote in that Republican primary. You can see how that changes things.
Change, however, comes awfully slowly in Florida. For two decades, lawmakers have tried to close the write-in loophole without success. You can be sure it will be used again in 2020 to keep millions of people from voting in primaries.
By launching a statewide petition drive, All Voters Vote (allvotersvote.org) is continuing a trend that has restored voting rights to most felons, legalized the medical use of marijuana and expanded air and water protections.
The group must have its signature petition form approved by the state. Then it must gather signatures from nearly 77,000 voters to force a legal review of the petition language by the Florida Supreme Court. It takes 766,000 valid signatures to make the ballot.
Stearns said it’s wrong that both major parties get millions from the state every election, mostly from candidate filing fees, as they defend an exclusionary system in a time of high political polarization when more and more voters, especially young people, refuse to join either party.
Open primaries would likely create a new set of problems, however.
Gruters says elections will get vastly more expensive as candidates are forced to appeal to a broader universe, and that will make money an even bigger factor than it is now in Florida — if that’s possible.
Other states with open primaries must also deal with what’s known as “party crashing,” where one party seeks to manipulate the primary outcome to make sure that the other side’s weakest candidate is on the general election ballot.
“No matter the system, it will be gamed. No system is perfect,” Stearns said. “But the political environment continues to worsen. That makes this solution increasingly obvious.”
It’s as obvious as it was 21 years ago.
Steve Bousquet is a columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Tallahassee. He can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 567-2240. Follow him on Twitter @stevebousquet.