Miami’s pro-immigration political booster says Florida must open its primary elections

Convinced the best way to change Florida’s politics is to change the system by which its politicians are chosen, former GOP mega-donor Mike Fernandez says he’ll join the push to allow millions of independent voters to participate in the state’s primary elections.

Fernandez, who’s made news over the last two years by leaving the Republican party and promising to spend millions backing pro-immigration politicians, told the Miami Herald that Florida’s August primaries must be opened beyond Democratic and Republican voters in order to effectuate change in the nation’s largest swing state. He says he’s still pushing forward with a non-profit he created last year to help support undocumented immigrants, but is rethinking his plans to promote better immigration policy primarily through political donations.

“Florida is among only a handful of states that do not allow all qualified voters to participate in primaries. How backwards is this? Almost a third of voters are registered as neither Democrats nor Republicans,” Fernandez wrote in an email. “I believe our nation’s founding principles provide that all who register should be able to vote. While three-quarters of all Americans support immigration reform, this wish is not represented by the majority of those currently in public office.”

Fernandez explained his new political priority shortly after the Herald wrote about his decision to refund himself most of the $5 million he deposited last April into a state-registered political committee he created to support pro-immigration candidates.

Fernandez initially would only say that he’d withdrawn his own money from Diversity … The Key to the American Dream PAC because he was shifting priorities and felt the November elections were too far along to accomplish much through campaign contributions. But over the weekend, he further explained in an email that a better path forward lay in changing the elections process to include independents earlier in the electoral decision-making.

“Before us is the opportunity to create a more representative process. That would give voters the ability to choose elected officials who want change on how we treat immigrants,” he said.

Even as voters like Fernandez increasingly register themselves as having no-party-affiliation, Florida remains among a minority of states where primaries remain closed to voters outside the political parties. In August, that meant 3.5 million eligible voters — or about 27 percent of the electorate — were unable to cast ballots as Democrats and Republicans nominated candidates for Congress, governor, the state cabinet and Florida Legislature.

Florida’s Democratic and Republican parties remain opposed to the idea of open primaries, in part because it allows voters from the other parties to strategically vote on the opposition’s nominees.

“We don’t feel that it’s right that Democrats help choose our nominee in the primary and I don’t think the Democrats would like Republicans helping to choose their nominee in primaries,” said Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “That’s akin to McDonald’s helping to choose the menu items for Burger King.”

But organizations pushing to open the August elections say the current process results in more-polarized general election choices for the entire electorate in November, and nominees more beholden to their parties than the voters.

“Closed primaries…produce elected officials more accountable to their party than to their constituents,” Open Primaries, a non-profit created to advocated for nonpartisan primary systems, states on its website. “They restrict participation and reinforce division.”

Last year, a poll conducted on behalf of Open Primaries and other organizations found that nearly three in four voters in the state support the involvement of independent voters in the primary elections. A similar number wanted the Florida Constitution Revision Commission to place an initiative on the November ballot to potentially do just that.

The commission, which meets once every 20 years, didn’t place such a question on the November ballot, but an outside group could still push a petition drive to give voters the option to open the state’s primary elections in future years.

Fernandez didn’t explicitly explain how he intends to force open Florida’s primaries, or say exactly what he’ll do with the resources he withdrew from his Diversity PAC. But it’s possible he’s preparing to push a petition drive. Florida attorney John Morgan, for instance, forced the state to expand its extremely limited medical marijuana market in 2016 after spending $7 million of his own dollars on two petition initiatives.

“Over my lifetime I have learned that there has never been a direct path from an idea to a successful goal. The journey requires constant adjustments in thought and direction, moving toward better and greater results. I have learned much, and the lesson was not cheap. But painful lessons are always the best teachers, and I have no regrets,” Fernandez wrote. “We are not going away, and we will continue to fight for change for the benefit of those whose voice is being crushed.”