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What you need to know about the 2020 elections across the greater Tampa Bay region.

Could Amendment 3 Free More Florida Voters From Party Politics?

A voter marks a ballot for the 2016 New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place.
A voter marks a ballot for the 2016 New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place.

A measure on the November ballot would give more voters a say in primary elections. In a rare instance, both of the major political parties in Florida are on the same side about this issue.

Darlene Swaffar has been a registered Republican for the past 20 years. She used to be independent and eventually picked a party when she realized she couldn’t participate in the Florida primary.

“I can appreciate the need or concern for independent voters to want to be able to vote in the primary,” said Swaffar, who chairs the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Broward County and lost the 2020 Republican primary in the race for U.S. House, District 22, which includes parts of Broward and southern Palm Beach counties. “But at the end of the day, you need to pick a side.”

Florida has a closed primary system. Voters must be registered as a Democrat or Republican to participate in either of the party’s primaries. Nearly 3.8 million Floridians — around a quarter of the state’s electorate — are non-party affiliated, NPAs, the fastest-growing group of voters in the state.

This partly explains the motivation behind one of this year’s proposed constitutional amendments. If approved next month, Amendment 3 would essentially open up primaries to allow all voters to vote for candidates on a single ballot in state races (federal races would not be affected).

Glenn Burhans, chair of the All Voters Vote committee, the group behind the Amendment 3 initiative, says he has been frustrated with the current primary system.

“There have been times where I’ve registered for a particular party to vote in a primary and then went ahead and changed my registration back to NPA,” he said. “The purpose of elections should be voter-centric. It should be the voters choosing their representatives—not the political parties.”

The amendment would establish a top two election — sometimes called a jungle primary. The two candidates who get the most votes advance to the general election — potentially resulting in fewer of the typical Democrat-Republican showdowns in November, says Charles Zelden, a history and politics professor at Nova Southeastern University.

Among the possible outcomes are status quo, two candidates from the same party or two candidates from third parties.

Amendment 3 could have a significant impact in places, such as South Florida, that lean more to one party, according to Zelden.

“You could end up, if you live in an area that is heavily to one party or another, never really having a real chance to elect somebody from the party you support,” he said. “So for example, in Broward County, which is heavily Democratic, you could end up having two Democrats up for every major slot in the general election.”

Swaffar, who believes folks should choose a side, is concerned about a new crop of voters who could potentially dilute races that aim to speak to members of the party. According to the latest voter registration data, NPA voters outnumber Republicans in Broward and Miami-Dade — the only two counties where that’s the case in a Republican-led state.

“As a Republican, I don't want someone from another party to vote for the candidate that can reflect our values,” she said. “If it is an open primary, independent and Democrat voters can maneuver and strategically focus on putting forth the weakest candidate for the Republican Party or eliminating a Republican candidate.”

Both the Florida Democratic and Republican parties are opposed to the measure. They were unsuccessful in getting the courts to prevent the measure from appearing on the upcoming November ballot.

Most recently, there’s been support for an emergency petition that wants the Florida Supreme Court to toss out the amendment — alleging the measure will make it harder for minority candidates to be elected. Supporters argue the measure would empower around 1.6 million voters of color — many of whom are young and Hispanic — to participate in Florida primaries.

Amendment 3 is one of the rare occasions that an issue has prompted bipartisan support as politics continues to become more polarized. Zelden says the increase in partisanship is responsible, in part, for the growing number of Florida NPAs over the past 25 years.

“A lot of Floridians are looking for an electoral process that is a little less partisan," he said. “It really has to do less with ideology and more to do with a question of affiliation."

Supporters of Amendment 3 say they’re not trying to get rid of political parties. They say a free-for-all, top-two election (which is used in California and a few other states) creates a more moderate political landscape. They argue that in a closed primary, candidates often appeal to extremes of their party base.

“To win a primary, all you have to do is feed enough red meat to the extreme wing of your base,” Burhans said. “You’re not held accountable for other voters because you’re locking up the election in the primary.”

If voters approve Amendment 3, it would take effect in 2024. Voters would have some time to consider staying with a party — or leaving altogether.
Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Alexander Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the University of Miami. He majored in English and was the the editor-in-chief of The Miami Hurricane newspaper from 2014-15. He was WLRN's digital intern during summer 2015. He subscribes to too many podcasts and can't get away from covering the arts in Miami.