Closing Primaries, Closing Minds: Florida’s Election Law Loophole and Political Polarization

Photo credit: St. Peters Blog

A closed primary system, except

Florida uses a closed primary system, meaning that you have to be a registered member of a party to vote in that party’s primary elections. However, a constitutional amendment passed in 1998 by direct democracy creates open primaries in districts where all candidates on the ballot are from the same party. Advocates of open primaries argue that they allow more moderate candidates to win because they have to appeal to a broader spectrum of the electorate, and are less dependent on party activists for electoral support.

The write-in loophole

Florida’s primary system thus offers an interesting blend of direct and representative democracy: the parties enjoy closed primaries in the state, but the voters stepped in and approved a ballot measure opening the primaries in cases where all a district’s candidates are from the same party. However, there is a loophole in the law that many Florida voters are critical of: if someone files as a write-in candidate – even if that candidate doesn’t have much of a chance of winning the contest, or doesn’t even reside in the district – the primary closes.

According to Naples Daily News, a number of “sham candidates” entered races for Florida House and Senate seats as write in candidates for the August 30, 2016 primaries, disenfranchising 1.6 million voters in the process. Journalists with the Tampa Bay Times report that a record thirty-five write-in candidates are running for the state legislature, thus preventing opposing party voters and independents from casting ballots. According to the same report, write-ins have successfully closed six Florida Senate primary races this year, four of which were Republican (Districts 1, 12, 27 and 28), and two Democratic (Districts 11 and 31).

Increasing polarization

According to the authors of the Tampa Bay Times report, “Shrinking the voter pool allows candidates to tailor messages to the extremes: the most conservative or most liberal voters in their party.” One way to measure this might be to compare the extremism of the primary winners and losers: For instance, using the American Conservative Union Lifetime Scores (State Legislatures) – available at votesmart.org – as a measure of political extremism, the Republican Party primary winner of Senate District 1, Doug Broxson, has a 94% approval rating, compared to that of the runner up, Mike Hill, with 90% approval.