Could Florida adopt the "Top Two" voting system?

Florida has a closed primary system. That means only registered Republicans can vote for Republican candidates and only registered Democrats can vote for Democrats. Independents, Greens, Peace & Freedom Party members and non-party-affiliated voters need not concern themselves with a primary election in the state (like, say, the January 2012 GOP presidential faceoff between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich) because, unless they're registered R or D, they're not participating.

Voting rights activists want to change that.

Originally, the folks with Florida Independent Voting were hoping to get nonpartisan open primaries on the 2014 ballot as a constitutional amendment. But that's been delayed until 2016.

"We're revamping the legalese because we know the petition will get challenged [in court]," says Duane E. Pike, a member of the organization. He says they're now tailoring the language of the proposed amendment to resemble a measure crafted in Arizona in 2012 (but rejected by voters).

The Florida proposal would allow all candidates for a political office to appear on a single primary ballot, with voters able to choose from among them regardless of their own political affiliation. The top two vote-getters would then go on to run in a general election.

Advocates say this will no longer make independent voters "second-hand citizens" who are denied the chance to vote for a political party's candidate.

Top Two voting has been approved and is being used in Washington state, California and Louisiana.

But the political parties don't like the idea at all, and other critics say the idea is overrated.

After California conducted its first election using the Top Two system statewide in 2012, analysts with the group FairVote wrote that "in the vast majority of cases (from 2012 in California), Top Two fails to have any meaningful impact on the race, retaining uncompetitive races dominated by incumbents and major party insiders — yet it comes at the expense of near complete elimination of minor parties and independents from a general election voice.”

But Ray Hudkins of Florida Independent Voting uses the loss of 20-term Democratic Congressman Pete Stark as an example of what can come out of Top Two voting. Stark was a fiercely partisan Democrat representing parts of the San Francisco Bay Area's East Bay since the early 1970s who was ousted by a 32-year-old upstart and fellow Democrat named Eric Swalwell.

Swalwell isn't considered as liberal as Stark, and Hudkins says that a positive attribute to Top Two voting is that it tends to reward moderates vs. more ideological candidates. "A premise of Top Two is that all candidates have to take a more reasoned approach as to how they would legislate," he told me last week on WMNF's Last Call radio show. He says that Top Two compels candidates who would ordinarily have to cater to their base in a primary to go directly to a general election message because of the need to persuade "a lot more voters not in your wheelhouse."

Duane Pike says he got involved with Florida Independent Voting.Org after his experience of voting in Florida in 2004. A former Vietnam combat veteran, he says he hadn't ever been involved in politics, but felt a kinship that year with fellow Swift Boat veteran John Kerry. But he couldn't vote for Kerry in that year's presidential primary because he wasn't a registered Democrat. As an independent voter, he was told he could only vote for judges that August election, about whom he didn't have a clue.

After the general election that year, he began investigating groups that were trying to break up the closed primary system in Massachusetts and New York. He sort of "backed into" becoming involved in Florida, and now says more than 200 people are working on the cause throughout the Sunshine State.

Top Two voting should not be confused with Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), in which a voter lists the various candidates running for a particular office in order from first to last. IRV is used in a number of countries around the globe and in cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco and Oakland, where the current mayor, Jean Quan, was elected by IRV.

On Election Night 2011, Quan fell short to Don Peralta in the number of first-place votes, but surged to victory due to the second- and third-place votes she received.

Hudkins doesn't want to bash IRV, but says it has the potential to confuse voters.

For more information on bringing the Top Two voting system to Florida, check the website for Florida Independent

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