Closed Primary Elections Draw Scrutiny From Escambia’s Stafford, Other Elections Bosses

October 5, 2017

As Florida’s population grows and more residents shun traditional party affiliations, voters are befuddled, if not angry, about the state’s closed-primary system, including the use of write-in candidates, Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Strafford and two other local elections supervisors testified Wednesday.

Stafford said the write-in candidate process can get voters “amped up” if they believe it is violating the fairness of the election, although it is legally justified.

“At some point, you have to question what effect does that have on the electorate writ large. Does it increase confidence? Does it decrease confidence?” Stafford said. “We’re in the business, particularly here in Florida, of trying increase confidence in the election process.”

“When it comes to the primary election, our voters are confused,” Broward County Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes told the state Constitution Revision Commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee.

Many new voters move to Florida from other states with more open voting systems as opposed to Florida’s closed primaries, which are restricted to voters who are registered with parties. Florida is one of nine states using a closed-primary system.

“We have people coming from all over the country, and they bring with them the experiences that they have had and what they know,” Snipes said. “It’s difficult for them to understand.”

Adding to the confusion is that more voters are opting not to join the Republicans or Democrats but register with “no party affiliation” or in a host of minor parties. No-party affiliation is the fastest growing segment of the electorate and is particularly popular with young people, with more than one out of every four Florida voters falling into that category.

But no-party voters can’t vote in Democratic or GOP primaries, although they can cast their ballots in non-partisan primary races and in general elections.

Florida has a provision that opens primaries to all voters when all of the candidates are from the same party and there is no general-election opposition. But it has been undermined by a state Division of Elections ruling, upheld by the courts, that says the presence of a general election write-in candidate closes primaries, even if only one party has a primary election.

The net effect of the so-called “write-in candidate loophole” is that the primary winner ends up as the only name on the general election ballot, virtually assuring a win.

Asked how widely the write-in candidate loophole was being used to close primaries, Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards said her “educated guess” was that it could occur in approximately 10 out of 67 counties in an election cycle, although some counties had more of a “propensity” for using it.

“It’s not every day, every place. But it does occur,” Edwards said.

Snipes said the use of write-in candidates in Broward, the county with second-highest voter registration, is fairly common.

“What I see happen quite often is the write-in candidate is put into the race as a tool to close the race down,” Snipes said, saying many write-in candidates even drop out before the general election.

Edwards said the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, which represents all 67 elections supervisors, would not take a position on proposed constitutional changes for the primary system, since it would be a conflict to advocate or oppose measures where supervisors had to count ballots.

But all three elections supervisors testified resolving voter confusion or complaints about the primary system could increase voter participation in the primaries. Edwards noted only 24 percent of voters turned out for last year’s primary election, while 75 percent participated in the general election.

The Constitution Revision Commission, which has the ability to put constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot, is already considering one measure to address the controversy over write-in candidates closing primaries.

Sherry Plymale, a member of the commission’s Ethics and Elections Committee, advanced an amendment this week from Palm Beach County State Attorney David Aronberg that would let all voters participate in a primary if there is no general election-opposition or if the only opposition comes from write-in candidates.

Steven Hough of Florida Fair and Open Primaries talked to the committee about his proposal (700575) to change Florida’s closed-primary system to a “top-two” system where all voters could participate in primary elections.

Patterned after election systems now used in California and Washington, Hough said the revision would place all candidates for an office in the primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election.

For Hough’s proposal to advance, it would have to be sponsored by a Constitution Revision Commission member and win support from at least nine other members. It could also be embodied in a proposal filed by commission members, who have until Oct. 31 to submit their proposed constitutional amendments.

by Lloyd Dunkelberger The News Service of Florida

Pictured: Escambia Count Supervisor of Elections David Stafford. File photo.


14 Responses to “Closed Primary Elections Draw Scrutiny From Escambia’s Stafford, Other Elections Bosses”

  1. John K on October 9th, 2017 12:13 pm

    Primary elections should be open and we should have nonpartisan voter registration. If I’m a conservative, then let me pick my candidate. This should not be the former Soviet Union.

  2. Jim Stanton on October 6th, 2017 5:06 pm

    So the way some people think thousands of us whose jobs required us to be out of town on election day should not have had the right to vote because our jobs were civilian and not military. I had to be out of town for four to six weeks at a time on some jobs, but still I guess I shouldn’t have voted since I couldn’t go to my local polling place because I was several hundred miles away working and paying income tax so other’s could vote.

  3. Sedition on October 6th, 2017 2:01 pm

    Primaries SHOULD remain closed. If you allow an opposing party to vote in the “others” primary, they will inevitably vote for the weakest candidate, ie. the candidate easiest for their own party’s candidate to defeat. It has been done/attempted before. Each party should be allowed to vote for their OWN party’s strongest candidate to put forward. Open primaries are a bit like allowing the opposing team into your locker room while plays and signals are being designed.
    In the actual election, you are not constrained to your own party…vote for who you wish.

  4. FaithinUS on October 6th, 2017 12:00 pm

    Considering the utter disdain the public currently holds for BOTH political parties, it makes no sense to shut out voters at any point in the voting process strictly due to party affiliation. If we had more INDEPENDENT members of congress in DC and State gov, we likely wouldn’t have the gridlock we’ve been seeing the past decade. Perhaps Repubs could be persuaded to stop lying to their ‘base’ so flagrantly, and Dems could quit all the pandering to ’snowflakes’ wanting special treatment.
    How, though, will these Independent candidates ever get elected in a closed primary system?

  5. Henry W Coe on October 6th, 2017 11:38 am

    We need Open Primaries. We have 205,846 registered voters in Escambia County. 41,486 have “No Party Affiliation” and are blocked from choosing representation during the Primary Voting Process because we do not have Open Primaries.
    As a voter I should be able to choose any Political Affiliation as far as how I tag myself politically, but I should also be allowed to support any candidate I choose without regard to their Party Affiliation.
    In our Representative Democracy we need diversity and we need everyone to participate in the political process. Anything short of that is akin to gerrymandering.

  6. What if? on October 6th, 2017 8:44 am

    Maybe we could have a system where you are allowed to vote in one primary but not all, regardless of party affiliation. The Dog Lovers would have to think long and hard about voting in the Cat Lovers primary for a candidate who does not love cats, because that would mean they couldn’t also vote for the Dog Lover who loves dogs the most. But it would benefit the Dog Lovers who don’t find a candidate within their own party who they think loves dogs enough; they could vote for the Cat Lover who at least seems to hate dogs the least.

  7. SW on October 6th, 2017 7:21 am

    Confused voters shouldn’t vote. Confused indicates uneducated. Uneducated voters should not vote, either.

  8. citizen on October 6th, 2017 12:26 am

    Ok David–makes sense.

  9. Bryan Bethea on October 5th, 2017 11:08 pm

    I have to agree with David Huie. The purpose of a primary is for members of a political party to select its candidate for an office. Open primaries make no sense at all. Why should an independent or Democrat be able to select the Republican party’s candidate? Nothing about the primary system prevents non-affiliated voters from casting their ballots in the general election. If Florida moves toward open primaries then I would suggest the Louisiana or California-style jungle primary where the top two candidates, regardless of party, move on to the general election.

  10. Suzie B on October 5th, 2017 11:01 pm

    After working the polls for over 25 years, the repetitive issue we kept seeing was people who thought they could vote for a candidate in any party during primaries. They were very frustrated when the person they wanted to vote for wasn’t on their ballot. Some were new to Florida. Many would just walk out. Unfortunately, there was also confusion of young people thinking that if the chose NPA, they could vote for anyone because they “didn’t choose a party”. Misinformation being given to them somewhere. I hope people will continue to educate themselves. You would honestly be surprised at what some folks expect and do when they come to vote.

  11. citizen on October 5th, 2017 12:13 pm

    Love this and the mail in ballot. Gives you time to look things over carefully and with the internet chose and do research– even especially into searching the choices for judges and/ or amendments
    Hopefully there will more informed voters then sheep who vote the party line and identity politics and just fill in the blank or do what the person in front of them is doing for a sticker and to show their face at the poll. Wake up America. This is becoming critical.

  12. David Huie Green on October 5th, 2017 12:03 pm

    “We should, however, be able to evaluate all the candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and choose the best person for the job – not be forced to vote the party line.”

    We are allowed to evaluate all the candidates.

    We are only allowed to select a candidate for our party to offer to the voters. The voters in the general election look at all the candidates submitted and vote for the one they like best (or dislike least).

    What we are NOT allowed to do is select the candidate for the Democratic Party AND the Republican Party AND the Communist Party AND the Green Party AND the Libertarian Party AND the Independent Party AND the Cat Lovers Party AND the Dog Lovers Party.

    That would be silly. If members of the Dog Lovers Party could select the candidate for the Cat Lovers Party, they might pick a person who wasn’t a cat lover. Non- Republicans could pick a non-Republican. It would violate the First Amendment freedom of assembly to force a group to accept members at odda with their defining principles.

    We could pick any one if we joined THAT party (and if it really existed) but not all.

    David for freedom

  13. elizoria on October 5th, 2017 9:46 am

    @Carolyn – I disagree. We shouldn’t “have to” choose parties and stick with them no matter what. We should, however, be able to evaluate all the candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and choose the best person for the job – not be forced to vote the party line.

  14. Carolyn Bramblett on October 5th, 2017 6:32 am

    There really is nothing offered in the States of Washington and California that we need to pattern ourselves over. Too bad people don’t like that they have to choose a party. I don’t even believe we should have mail-in ballots except for the military stationed overseas at the time of the election. Show up to the polls on THE DAY or don’t vote.

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