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Aaron McKinney: Time for Florida Dems to embrace open primaries

Thirty-seven percent of Florida voters are registered Democrats. That’s a steep drop from 54 percent in 1990.

Republican voter registration has also plummeted, from 41 percent 20 years ago to 35 percent today.

Where are all these voters going?

They’re not going anywhere. They’ve been right in front of our eyes the whole time.

They’re registered, they’re ready to vote but they don’t want to join a party. We are witnessing a historic shift in voter affiliation in Florida and across the country.

The numbers of independent (NPA) voters are exploding and are growing faster than either major political party. 27 percent of registered voters-3.6 million Floridians — are now independents. And they are shut out of voting in Florida’s closed primary elections.

As an African American leader of the Florida Democratic Party, I believe we have two choices in how we relate to the growing ranks of independent voters, many of whom are people of color and young, like me.

We can cross our arms and say, “you must join our party if you want to vote,” or we can live up to our mission to be a party of inclusion, participation, diversity and progress, open the Democratic primaries, and build a new governing coalition for Florida.

I choose the latter. Open primaries.

If the Florida Democratic Party is going to continue its claim as the Party of inclusion, it’s time to stand up for independent voters and show them we value their involvement and participation. We have the legal authority to open our primary elections to independents.

The Supreme Court has ruled that political parties can supersede state election laws regarding who can and cannot participate in their nominating primaries. Unlike other election laws and statutes over which the parties have no control, the Florida Democratic Party could insist that unaffiliated independent voters be allowed to participate in our primary elections as early as 2020.

2020 will be a fiercely competitive primary election season with over 20 presidential contenders duking it out, but 3.6 million Floridians will be denied a say under the current rules.

The Florida Democratic Party has a golden opportunity to bring these voters into the conversation and into our vision for the future. It’s a once in a generation opportunity we cannot afford to squander.

Independents decide elections.

But since neither party reaches out to them until just before the general election, they swing back and forth between Democrat and Republican.

In 2008, Florida independents went for Barack Obama 52 to 45 percent. But in 2016, they preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 47 to 42 percent. Two years later, they went for Andrew Gillum over Ron DeSantis 54 to 44 percent. And we should have done even better.

When Democrats lock millions of voters out of the primaries, it’s a tossup as to whether they will vote for us in November. Closed primaries are unfair, but they are also preventing Democrats from building a lasting majority.

Pew Research has found that a majority of independent voters consistently lean toward progressive values and issues. Even among conservative independents, Pew found them to actually be aligned with Democrats on many key policy issues, from immigration reform to same-sex marriage.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Younger Americans, including young voters of color, have the highest rates of political independence. 50 percent of millennial voters now identify as independents. Their turnout has nearly doubled since 2014, and for the first time, they cast more votes than baby boomers in the 2018 midterm elections.

These are natural Democratic Party allies, and they want to vote.

We risk losing an entire generation of open-minded voters if we don’t embrace and respect their desire to identify and register as independents. They will vote for our candidates.

But not if they feel disrespected.

The media sometimes projects that independents are all “angry white men.” That’s not true.

Independents are as diverse as our state, and their numbers are growing in communities of color.

Too often, our party has gone to communities of color with a backward-looking message: “We have to defeat the Republicans, or you will lose what little you have.”

It’s an out-of-touch approach, indicative of flawed or antiquated tactics. African American and Latino voters young and old are growing tired of this approach, and rightfully so.

Witness the 1.6 million African American voters who stayed home during the 2016 election, the first decline in turnout in over 20 years, and a Latino voter turnout that held steady from the previous election despite a significant voter registration effort.

Our party should be sending a clear message to all Floridians that the Democratic Party has a vision of progress, democracy and participation. And we don’t just talk the talk, but we walk it like we talk it — shoutout to Gillum.

Bringing independent voters into the Democratic Party’s nominating process brings us more in line with our own values and gives us a distinct advantage that will pay dividends in general elections for years to come.

The Miami-Dade Democratic Party just passed a resolution urging the Florida Democratic Party to open its primaries in 2020 and every election after.

Several other county parties have passed similar resolutions or are actively considering them. These resolutions will have a full hearing at our party’s convention in October.

I hope every Florida Democrat will stand with me, support a move to open primaries, and build a new progressive future for Florida.


Aaron McKinney is a former State Senate political staffer and State Committeeman for the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee.

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