Alas, we do not live in that perfect world yet. So what is a passionate and determined chapter leader, like myself, to do to help keep his chapter members engaged, growing, and filled with a sense of purpose when we don’t have any local candidates to support this election cycle?
Well, if we can’t help local independent candidates, we can help local independent voters!
Representative Democracy Or Partisan Dictatorship?
Did you know that the over 3 million Floridians currently registered to vote as independents can't vote in the partisan primaries?
Furthermore, despite recent improvements, Florida is still gerrymandered into safe districts that cause the state legislature and senate to be overwhelmingly red, with the remaining seats ending up as hardcore safe blue districts.
The problem, as we all know, is that Florida is a major swing state. Florida is as purple as the “mountains majesty” we sing about in America The Beautiful.
So what happens in this scenario is that in these safe districts, red or blue, the election is often decided in the primary because the chosen candidate typically ends up running against a weak candidate who has no chance of winning or completely unopposed in the later general election. That isn’t representative democracy, it’s partisan dictatorship!
When candidates decide to run for their party’s nomination in Florida, there is ZERO incentive to appeal to anyone other than the most hardcore members of their base so that they can win the primary. If you can win the primary in a safe district, you don’t even have to fake an attempt to appeal to the other two thirds of the electorate.
If you are an independent voter in Florida and you are lucky enough to have a ballot with more than one name and one party on it for any office in the general election, you are stuck with choosing between the lesser of two evils. And you never even got a say in who those choices would be. As a result, many registered voters check out and don’t participate in the general election.
If we had open primaries in Florida, both parties would be forced to self-moderate, either by fielding candidates who are more palatable to a greater range of Floridians or through more moderate candidates choosing to run on their own.
Oh The Irony!
There are several ironies with this. First, if one looks at this objectively, opening up primaries would actually be a saving grace for the partisan system, which I personally do not want to help keep alive any longer. I would love to get rid of all political parties. The second irony is that the parties themselves are adamantly against open primaries. They like business as usual.
The problem with business as usual is that, while the Republicans have dominated Florida politics for approximately 20 years, the Democrats did the same thing for a generation before them, and there is no doubt that the Democrats would do the exact same thing if they were able to take back control of the state. Deviating from the status quo only - at least in their minds - opens up opportunities for their power to be challenged.
Alternating blue and red waves, whether every election cycle or every generation, are not what a representative democracy is supposed to be about. Whether it is in Florida or the country as a whole, we are better than a divided bus perpetually careening between partisan ditches. We don’t need blue waves or red waves… we need a purple wave.
The Numbers Game
Now I’m sure you’re wondering “why don’t centrist independents like myself just run as independents in Florida and circumvent the entire partisan process altogether?” Let me give you some examples from my neck of the woods in St. Johns County.
The county’s voter registration composition is 94,749 Republicans, 41,858 Democrats, and 40,161 not politically affiliated. If we had an election for a countywide position a centrist independent who leans Republican could win if her or she got all of the non-affiliated voters and a good chunk of the Democrats and Republicans.
Unfortunately, we do not have any countywide elected officials and the county is carved up into districts so that almost all of the Democrats are concentrated in the metropolitan area of St Augustine and the registration across the rest of the county, such as in my NW suburbs 20 miles away, is overwhelmingly Republican. The result is that a majority of the offices in the county that are up for election go to Republican candidates.
As for the U.S. House districts, you should see the maps. Most of downtown Jacksonville/Duval County, which is overwhelmingly Democratic, is in one district while the rest of Northeast Florida, consisting of the three counties of Nassau, Duval, and Northern St. Johns County, is in another district, which is overwhelmingly red.
But wait, there’s more! Let’s say that a centrist independent decided to throw caution to the wind and run in a stacked deck election. The parties have made it extremely prohibitive for average citizens to get on the ballot as an independent. You either have to pay a pricey filing fee or gather a disproportionate number of petition signatures from voters in your district.
For instance, if you wanted to run for the U.S. House in my district, you would either need to pay a filing fee of $6,960 or collect 5,471 individual petitions from voters in the district. Want to run for the state legislature, a 2 year job that is part time and pays $29,697? You would have to either pay a filing fee of $1,188 just to be able to appear on the ballot or collect 1,458 voter petitions. For statewide elections, such as U.S. Senator, Governor, Agriculture Commissioner, etc., where you would have a greater chance of success because of how evenly divided the state is, you would either need to pay that same $6,960 fee to get on the ballot or collect 128,638 petitions from voters across the state.
So for the time being, the parties are still in the driver's’ seat in a state like Florida. Luckily, there are other ways for us average citizens to affect change.
Every 20 years, the state of Florida has a Constitutional Revision Commission. It is a bipartisan commission that meets and holds public hearings in the winter and spring of an election year to hear citizens’ requests for changes to the state constitution, as well as to consider the changes the Commission wants to put on the ballot for voters in the fall.
Earlier this year, a group called Florida Fair and Open Primaries (FFOP), a non-partisan non-profit organization attended this election’s hearings and advocated for a ballot measure to open Florida’s primary election. The proposed measure made it out of the subcommittee and was recommended to the full committee where it wasn’t even given the opportunity to be voted on because the partisans on both sides of the aisle decided that it wasn’t in their interest in a backroom deal.
As we independents so often do, the folks at FFOP persevered and decided to take the only course of action they had remaining: a citizens’ initiative to put open primaries on the ballot.
It’s too late to get this measure on the ballot for 2018, but our sights are set on 2020. It will take an exorbitant number of petitions from registered Floridian voters to make it happen - well over 760,000. As if that were not a high enough barrier, the petition signatures acquired will also have to be spread proportionately throughout the counties of Florida. Furthermore, before FFOP is allowed to continue with the initiative, they must first collect 76,000 petitions, thus triggering a judicial review of the ballot language by the State Supreme Court. They will only be allowed to keep collecting petition if the Court allows them to proceed.
If the Court doesn’t like the ballot language and wants it to be changed, then all 76,000 petitions will have to be re-collected and the review process re-done. Assuming that the initiative makes it through judicial review, the full 760,000 petition signatures could then be challenged when submitted. So in actuality, it is more like one million petitions need to be collected statewide to survive partisan sabotage. Finally, there is the specter of legal challenges if the measure is put on the ballot, especially if it passes in 2020.
But hey, there’s a sliver of good news! The petitions need to be turned in by February 2020 and are valid for two years once they have been collected, meaning that petitions are already being collected right now!
Get Action Chapters!
Here is where Unite America and my merry band of chapter members comes in. This whole open primary effort was brought to my attention by one of our chapter members who was involved with it and mentioned it at a chapter meeting a few months ago.
Since we have not been able to find any local candidates to throw our support behind, we are going to be focusing our efforts on helping FFOP over the next 18 months to raise awareness of the issue locally and statewide and collecting as many petitions as possible. And maybe, just maybe, through these efforts we will come across other passionate centrist independents that would be daring enough to run for office with the support of Unite America in 2020.
Teddy Roosevelt always used to say “get action”, and there is plenty of action to be gotten if you are a Unite America chapter without a candidate. Find out what ballot measures could help independents in your state and help make them happen. In the process, you might just come across potential candidates for future races that your chapter could throw their support behind!
One day, if we can re-make Florida in our purple image through open primaries, we will also be able to pass laws that will ease the ballot access rules for independents, finally leveling the playing field. THEN we can finally start to successfully circumvent the partisan model here in the sunshine state.
One final note: if you are a registered voter in Florida, please go to the Florida Fair and Open Primaries website and print out both petitions. The first petition calls for a top two open primary for the state and the second states that if all voters cannot vote in the primaries, then no public money or public facilities can be used for the primary elections - by having two petitions, it will be harder for partisans to challenge the measure, so make sure to fill, sign, and mail both of them. If you aren’t, but have friends or family that live in Florida, forward the link to them!
Perry is a Unite America Founding Member and currently serves as the organization's Northeast Florida Chapter Leader.