ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — According to the latest numbers from the Division of Elections website, more than 900,000 Floridians have already voted in the March 17 presidential primary election.

However, more than 3.6 million registered voters will remain on the sidelines.

That’s because Florida is one of just nine states that completely closes their primary elections to voters not aligned with the Republican or Democratic parties.

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That system is “unfair and democratic,” says St. Petersburg voter Zachary Leyton Rivera-Reed, who has been an NPA (Non-party Affiliated) since he initially registered to vote.

“I just have never bought into the idea that we need to have a party affiliation,” he told us.

That aligns him with many millennial voters. According to a recent Gallup survey, nearly half of all millennial voters call themselves independent voters.

“In terms of being able to have a voice in every part of the process, they want us to support the candidate that they choose, after they choose it, but they don’t want us to be part of choosing that candidate,” complains Leyton Rivera-Reed.

The “they” he refers to are the Republican and Democratic parties in Florida.

Parties oppose "All Voters Vote" amendment

RPOF Chair Joe Gruters says opening up the primary system “destroys the ability of the more than 9 million grassroots members of political parties to determine the candidates they want to represent their party and its values.”

Alex Morash, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, says the FDP supports “same-day party changes,” which he defines as allowing an independent to vote in a Democratic primary by changing his or her party registration to Democrat to vote on Election Day.

But both parties vehemently oppose the only proposal that could allow independent voters to participate in primary elections: the All Voters Vote proposed constitutional amendment that (pending a Florida Supreme Court review) will be on the ballot this fall.

A variety of states employ some sort of “open-primary” system, though the All Voters Vote proposal would be a “top two” primary format, as is currently the case in California and Washington state.

The Florida proposal would create a single primary for each office – all candidates for an office would appear on the same ballot, regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote getters in the primary would advance to the general election.

Critics say that this “Jungle Primary” form of open primaries actually reduces voter choice by making it possible that two candidates of the same party would face off in the general election. That’s what happened in the U.S. Senate race in California in 2018, where incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein ran against fellow Democrat Kevin de Leon.

“We support the democratic process and a system that gives voters more opportunities to choose a candidate that reflects their values. This ballot initiative would do the opposite,” said Democratic chairwoman Terrie Rizzo. “A proposal which eliminates the chance for a Democrat to make the ballot is not democratic.”

“This is an abolishment of primaries. There is simply a winnowing election and a general election with two and only two candidates,” Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters wrote in an op-ed in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last year.

Will the "will of the voters" be heeded?

Oldsmar resident Don Grimme has been a non-party-affiliated voter for about a decade. He did re-register as a Democrat last month in time to qualify to vote in this month’s primary, but said it was his frustration with the political situation in the country that led him to becoming an independent.

"We're the largest state that has closed primaries, so I support a change that would give everyone the opportunity to vote," he says. "We pay taxes. We support our government. But unfortunately, as many as 30 percent of the people are not going to be able to vote in this primary on March 17."

Tara Newsom, director for St. Petersburg College’s Center for Civic Learning & Community Engagement, believes opening up primary elections would be good for democracy in the Sunshine State, but says that voters should note what the Republican-controlled legislature has done to other constitutional amendments passed in recent years.

“I think what I’m really worried about is that even if Floridians come out and vote to support an amendment that opens primaries in Florida, that the Florida Legislature will not necessarily enable the will of Floridians. We’ve seen that many times in the past," she said. "And so I would really encourage Floridians to be paying attention to this constitutional amendment to open the primaries in Florida but to pay even greater attention to whether Tallahassee enables it.”

The All Voters Vote constitutional amendment would not address allowing independents to vote in presidential primaries. The measure will go before the Florida Supreme Court soon to have its ballot language reviewed.

If approved, it will appear on the November 3 ballot.