With Constitution Revision Commissioner William “Bill” Schifino Jr.’s recent proposal to open Florida’s primaries, a nationwide movement has some steam in the Sunshine State.
Specifically, the change proposed by Schifino—a Tampa attorney and 2016-2017 president of The Florida Bar—would allow independent voters to cast ballots in primary elections.
Florida’s constitution currently provides for closed primaries: Elections in which votes for primary candidates can only be cast by voters within their respective parties, which excludes the more than 3.4 million registered “no party affiliated” (NPA) voters in Florida.
If placed on the ballot in 2018 and approved by 60 percent of voters, Schifino’s amendment would give NPA voters freedom to “vote a primary election ballot of a political party.”
The amendment does not change constraints to registered voters. Under Schifino’s amendment, those registered as Democrats may still only in Democratic primaries. The same goes for registered Republicans.
The idea for the amendment, Schifino said, stemmed from the CRC’s listening tour around the state during the first half of this year, when the commissioners gathered insight from the public before moving forward with proposals. Having attended most of those meetings, Schifino said the public had a recurring interest in opening Florida’s primaries to NPAs.
“Probably each and every (meeting) I attended there were always citizens addressing the issue,” Schifino said. He added it was even brought up by some supervisors of elections at an Ethics and Elections Committee meeting earlier this year.
Before introducing the proposal ahead of the Commission’s Oct. 31 deadline, Schifino, who sits on the CRC’s Ethics and Elections Committee, ran the idea by friends and peers and decided to move forward with a formal amendment.
In doing so, Schifino, managing partner for Tampa’s Burr & Forman firm, and an appointee of Senate President Joe Negron, grabbed the attention and applause of state and national organizations pushing for open primaries.
“We think it’s a huge step forward,” said Steve Hough, the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.
Hough acknowledged there was a strategy in place to encourage members of the public to use the unique power of the CRC to open Florida’s primaries to NPAs. Before the CRC’s public hearings, Florida Fair and Open Primaries launched a series of robocalls encouraging the public to voice their concerns with Florida’s primary voting in the nine separate stops on the listening tour.
Florida Fair and Open Primaries’ endgame is to open the state’s primaries to a system in which voters, regardless of parties, can cast ballots for candidates, regardless of affiliation. This would advance the top two popular candidates of any primary to a general election.
Hough said Schifino’s proposal is moving the needle forward with the compromise of potentially allowing NPAs to vote in primaries.
Hough’s organization works closely with Open Primaries, a national, election reform organization working to enact open and nonpartisan primary systems.
John Opdycke, the group’s president, said he’s been an activist for more than 25 years, but this is the first time he’s seen a widespread focus to change state election systems.
He hinted that focus might be a residual of the sour taste voters had following the 2016 national primary election, when voters might’ve felt betrayed by the primary process, even going so far as to question the integrity of the election system itself.
“We’re starting to see how people are incorporating that conversation into state politics,” Opdycke said. “This is an issue that has a lot of organic support in Florida, and we want to build in the movement.”
There are considerable hurdles to clear for the proposed amendment.
CRC Chair Carlos Beruff will have to refer the amendment to committees, which likely will include Ethics and Elections, on which Schifino sits.
Should it pass the CRC’s final vote next year, it will still have to be approved by 60 percent of Florida voters on the 2018 ballot.