OUR POSITION: As goes California, so goes Florida?

The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment that would radically change the state’s electoral system.

Supporters of the amendment need 766,200 signatures on petitions to get their question on the 2020 General Election ballot. As of early last week, they had submitted 395,924 to state elections officials.

If they are successful, and if the Supreme Court approves the wording for the ballot, voters would decide whether Florida switches from a “closed” primary electoral system to a primary open to everyone, regardless of political party.

In the current setup, only members registered with a particular party may vote in that party’s primary, except in what has become increasingly rare circumstances. Republicans vote in the Republican primary, Democrats in the Democratic Party, independents in no primary.

While the state as a whole is evenly split, the eventual winners of many local contests are now decided in the primary, because of the overwhelming dominance of a given political party in a given county. Charlotte and Sarasota counties, for instance, have not not had a Democrat on the County Commission for decades; the opposite tends to hold true for Republicans in South Florida.

The reality is that office-holders are often chosen in the primary, not the general election, when all registered voters may participate. That means a large segment of the overall voting population never really gets the chance to weigh in. Too often these days, the general election is, in practice, a hollow exercise.

In some instances in Florida, the rules of engagement call for an open, universal primary—if candidates have only one party affiliation and the winner will face no opposition in the general election. Party operatives know this, though, and they recruit straw men to run as faux candidates, thus closing the primary. It’s a shoddy trick, but nowadays an accepted and expected tactic. Unfortunately, again, it leaves a significant number of voters on the sideline.

In the system proposed with the amendment, all primaries would be wide open to all, regardless of party affiliation. The two candidates with the most votes in the primary would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

This isn’t strictly an open primary system, where voters chose one or another party’s ballot. Fifteen states allow the crossover system.

Instead, this is a top-two free-for-all, known as a “jungle primary.” It is being used in Washington, Louisiana and partially in Nebraska. The best known is in California, where it was approved in 2010.

The experience there?

The open system appears to have led to “less extremity” in the state Legislature, University of Southern California professor Christian Grose told NPR last year. The desire for political moderation was a main factor behind the initial two-through primary drive, which was launched when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in office.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, final runoff elections between members of the same party are now fairly common. Minor party candidates rarely advance, but that’s the case everywhere.

Hundreds of thousands of signatures are still needed before this amendment gets near a ballot. The Supreme Court must sign off too. Only then will debate begin on what may seem an odd but intriguing idea.

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