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Partisan Primaries in Florida – BPR Interviews: Steve Hough

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Steve Hough is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries, an organization that, alongside Open Primaries and All Voters Vote, supported Florida’s 2020 Ballot Amendment 3. Amendment 3 would have implemented a top-two jungle primary system in Florida, allowing all registered voters to vote in a nonpartisan primary where the top-two vote-getting candidates, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. Under the current system in Florida only registered party members can vote in primaries. While the amendment garnered the support of 57% of voters, it ultimately didn’t meet the 60% threshold required for it to be adopted.

August Bayard: This election cycle your organization, Florida Fair and Open Primaries, advocated for Amendment 3. What would that amendment have done if it had been adopted?

Steve Hough: Amendment 3 proposed a top-two primary, as  they conduct in California and Washington state currently, with the exception that it would only pertain to our state races. That would be the Florida legislature, the governor, and the cabinet positions that are elected. All candidates for every seat and office would appear on a single ballot and all voters would be allowed to vote in an open primary for each seat regardless of political affiliation. The top-two vote-getters would move on to the general election. And under Amendment 3, candidates would be allowed to display their party affiliation on the ballot, as well as giving the two major political parties an opportunity to endorse or nominate their own candidates in some other fashion.

AB: Why would this change have been a good thing?

SH: Well, several reasons. First of all, I ran the numbers on the general election for the state legislature in 2018, and roughly 75% of those races were either uncontested–one or other of the parties had no opposition–or else they were won by margins greater than ten percent. So in a case where so many races are actually decided in a primary election, we just feel that it’s incumbent on the legislature, or, in this case a citizen’s initiative, to allow the about 3.8 million people that are barred from voting in our primary elections [to vote.]

Secondly, in these primary races that are deciding so many elections, the turnout is traditionally low. In 2020 after the August primary, we had a banner headline in the front page of my local newspaper saying “Florida breaks record for turnout in primary: 28%.” In my view, that’s not anything that we should be bragging about. Now there’s two aspects to that. A lot of registered voters that are members of Democratic or Republican parties don’t participate in primaries, so there’s education to be done there as well on the importance of voting in primaries. But when 27% of the electorate is actually barred from participating, that’s another matter. 

AB: How have top-two open primaries worked elsewhere in the country?

SH: Studies in California and Washington State vary in their content. The studies that are published out of the Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California show that the top-two has been a positive reform as far as the approval of the legislature among voters and what the legislature is able to accomplish versus prior when they had a closed partisan system. Also, the representation of minorities [in these state legislatures] now mirrors the actual population makeup. It has actually increased since they adopted a top-two primary. The study that I’ve seen on Washington State was done as a doctoral thesis for a PhD in Political Science, and [the author, Emily Schnurr,] did not delve into the positive aspects as far as how it affected legislation or the operation of the legislature, but she did indicate that as soon as it was adopted in Washington State, which was prior to California adopting it, 76% of the voters approved of it after the first election cycle in which it was used, [and] turnout increased significantly in the first year.

AB: Can you tell me about the opposition that your campaign faced? I know that a report by Matthew Isbell raised some concerns about how this would impact minority representation.

SH: Matt Isbell is a freelance consultant, but he has connections to the Democratic Party. Basically, he looked at specific black majority districts and he took the total numbers in the districts and broke them down by voter registration, by race, ethnicity. He says that these black majority districts would be ‘bleached’–that’s the term that he used–and that they would no longer have [a black] majority [in the primary]. He claimed that due to that fact, black representatives from these certain districts would either disappear or have harder times being elected. I don’t have a problem with the numbers; my whole problem with it is that basically he says that white voters will necessarily vote for a white candidate over a black candidate, even if they’re Democrats. And he went a step further and claimed that black representatives are, by nature, more progressive than white candidates. I know a lot of white progressives that are much more liberal than some of the black folks that are out there.

[The report] was very effective. The Florida Democratic Party was backing it. They sent out mailers all across the state. I received one up here at my home, with some stock photo they got that featured Martin Luther King Jr. and former Representative John Lewis and said “Let’s not let Amendment 3 take back the gains that we’ve made over the decades.” It was very inflammatory and it was very effective.

But the main opposition that I’ve heard over the course of the campaign was basically just misinformation. People just didn’t understand it. Democrats and Republicans both would say that they don’t want members of the other party being able to vote for their candidates because they’ll vote tactically for whoever they perceive the weakest candidate is to go up against their candidate. Well, the problem with that is in an open primary such as Amendment 3 proposed, if someone votes for anyone other than their preferred candidate, they’re actually harming that candidate, because only the top two are going to go to the primary. So there was a lot of that that was just misinformation. I spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours on social media during the campaign just trying to see what people were saying and engage in dialogue. That was one of the most common misconceptions that I saw.

AB: What would you say to those who opposed the amendment because it could lead to strange results, like having an election between two Democrats, as happened in California’s 2018 Senate election?

SH: That was the second most popular complaint against the top-two and the response to that is a little more nuanced. There is a valid concern that in a very Democratic district, you could have five candidates running on the Democratic side and only two on the Republican side. Well, if the Democrats split the vote, if there’s real competition between all five candidates and they split the vote, there’s potential that two Republicans go, and how is that right? You’re a Democratic district and you get a Republican representative. So, now that’s a valid concern. However, based on the Washington study, same-party-candidate races, across all years, were an average of 7% of the total races and the vote-splitting where that had an effect on the outcomes was even a smaller percentage. So, first of all, relative to the number of races, the percentage is miniscule. The second response would be that there’s still some control that the party can have over that process. If those situations were to arise, then I think that’s where the respective parties should step in and maybe assert a little more control over who the candidates will be. There’s nothing in Amendment 3 to prevent it. Either the local party or the state party should recognize that it’s a problem if, in fact, it ever happened and it would be incumbent upon them to step in and mitigate the threat there.

AB: Why open primaries as opposed to some other reform like ranked-choice voting, which could help alleviate concerns about same-party runoffs and splitting the vote?

SH: If you have ranked-choice voting in Florida but you still have closed primaries, that could help–I don’t know if it would help increase turnout at all, but it may encourage more candidates to jump into the races–but we still have basically a duopoly [consisting of the two major parties]. I don’t see that being as effective as if we have the open primaries and merge it with ranked-choice voting.

AB: Electoral reform doesn’t seem to be a partisan issue. In the campaign for Amendment 3 in Florida this year, both the Democratic and Republican parties of Florida opposed the amendment for very different reasons. Why do you think that is?

SH: Well, it’s just not Florida. Wherever you see electoral reforms being proposed, the established parties, the majority of the time, oppose it and the reason why is they’re used to operating long-term under a certain paradigm where they know what voters they need to appeal to. Things are more predictable under the status quo. When you shake things up, saying “Okay, you’re gonna now have to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters,” they don’t know who those voters are and they don’t know if they’re gonna participate in a primary. If they do, they’re unsure of what their policy positions might be.

AB: It seems to me as if the states that have recently embraced electoral reform have been known for an independent maverick streak and a willingness to buck political parties. Maine, which implemented ranked-choice voting, has an independent Senator, Angus King, and Alaska, which just passed an electoral reform initiative, elected Senator Lisa Murkowski by write-in vote and frequently has cross-party coalitions in its state legislature. How can proponents of electoral reform advocate for it in states with stronger political parties?

SH: I think that it’s gonna boil down to more money being spent on education and perhaps a coordination of some of these nonpartisan reform organizations. Currently there are quite a few out there and I wouldn’t say that they’re working at cross-purposes, per se, but there’s limited funds, there’s limited donors in this area, so they’re all trying to push their own agendas.

Education is going to be key in any situation, but especially so in states where they don’t have this history of independent voters and they’re very polarized and locked into either Democratic or Republican Parties. So it’s going to be a long haul. It’s a slog, but the more people that get exposed to different ideas and as the political environment becomes more and more toxic, more people are looking for those kinds of alternatives, so the two working together might see more forward progress here in the near future.

AB: This election cycle, there were three electoral reform referendums on the ballots of three different states: this open primaries amendment here in Florida, an initiative to implement ranked-choice voting in Massachusetts, which also failed, and an initiative to implement a top-four open primary and ranked-choice voting in the general election in Alaska, which did pass. What do you make of this mixed bag of electoral reform referendum results? How are electoral reform’s prospects looking?

SH: I think the future is bright because the politics are even more toxic now at the end of the Trump administration than they were when I got involved in this. Trump still has, I think, around 30-some percent support [when we spoke on December 8th, 2020 FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of polls showed an approval rating of 43.3%], and the Democrats, they’re right now going through a more strenuous debate about how progressive or not their platforms and policies should be and the people on the progressive side are probably just as motivated, let me say, as the ones that still support Trump. Those are two big factors in our politics, and I think that people stuck in the middle, whether they’re leaning left or leaning right, see that the current system is not producing the type of results that they expect from their government, so I think the future is really bright. 

I’m really excited about Alaska. It was, I’m sure, inspired by the Katherine Gehl-Michael Porter report. [This report discusses how the political duopoly of the Republican and Democratic Parties has failed the American people. One of its recommendations was to institute top-four open primaries and instant run-off ranked choice voting in general elections.] They’ve since published a book, The Politics Industry, and Katherine Gehl has created a new organization, the Institute for Political Innovation. So I’m thinking that the time is really right for these types of reforms to be taken seriously. Also, the potential for attracting funders is greater. I saw that [Shark Tank investor] Mark Cuban was tweeting there for a while about Katherine Gehl’s book, and even [famous actor and venture capitalist] Ashton Kutcher, of all people, tweeted something about it. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation has been involved in this for a long time and is still funding, but over the years they’ve kind of rebalanced how they fund and who they fund. I think currently probably less is going to open primaries and more is going to ranked-choice voting, but, being that Gehl and Porter now have made the case for a combination of the two and people like Mark Cuban are getting excited about that prospect, who knows? But, I think that the time is right for reforms, just because, like I said, so many people are concerned about the government not functioning.

AB: What’s the next step for electoral reform in Florida? Something closer to Alaska’s new system?

SH: I’m excited about [Alaska’s new system]. I started leaning towards that in 2017. I worked my heart out for the top-two because I’ve been involved in it for so long. I even contributed quite a bit of money to it. So I don’t feel guilty because I didn’t waver in my support for Amendment 3. But I’m thinking personally we’re going to move on to something different. I think top-two might be dead in Florida. I think that’d be a high mountain to climb given what the precedent is. So I’m going to focus, I think, on this final-five, just from a grassroots perspective and do what I can to promote it and educate people.

AB: What exactly do you mean by final-five voting?

SH: Same as Alaska’s top-four, except it’d be a top five in the primary and then ranked-choice voting in the general election.

Matter of fact, just before you called I was working on a new logo for a Facebook page that I’m thinking about starting for Final-Five Florida.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.