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Legislature’s failures drive effort to change elections

Do you ever get the feeling that the price to pay for participating in democracy is being forced to sign up with either Ralph Kramden at the Raccoon Lodge or Laurel and Hardy at the Sons of the Desert? That’s not a choice. It’s a constitutional hazing.

So it is understandable why a well-meaning group, All Voters Vote, would embark on a grass roots effort to open up Florida’s antiquated, closed-shop, special-interest-dominated primary election process to make it easier for all registered voters regardless of party affiliation to participate in casting a ballot. Just imagine allowing the free, unfettered expression of political will. This could get real ugly real fast.

If this idea gets on the 2016 ballot and is approved by 60 percent of the voters, all registered voters would be allowed to cast primary ballots in congressional and state campaigns regardless of party affiliation. The candidate who receives the most votes and the runner-up (even if the candidate is of the same party) would then move on to the general election.

To date, Washington, California, Louisiana and Nebraska adhere to a “top two” primary system. Other states, including South Dakota, New Mexico and Illinois, are considering the shift.

The introduction of the “top two” primary concept to Florida reflects less of a logical solution to a problem than the frustration of how hapless and dysfunctional the state’s electoral process has become. Here, you cast a ballot and can’t wait to get home and take a shower.

Florida has seen a steady increase in no party affiliation voter registrations over the years, with nearly one-third of all Florida registered voters opting out of identifying themselves as Republicans or Democrats. And why not? Who would want to be associated with political parties that are little more than pole dancers to Tallahassee’s lobbyist corps?

That is largely because the fix is in when it comes to Florida elections. State House and Senate districts are drawn to protect incumbents, despite the constitutional amendments that ban the practice. First-time candidates position themselves for legislative power perches before they even get elected. That’s not an act of hubris. It’s merely knowing how the electoral scam works.

To preserve their political careers, all that most Florida politicians have to do is avoid being “primaried” — getting an opponent in a primary race who is more likely to be even more certifiably loopier and extreme than the incumbent. That’s how our process has devolved. Elected officials maintain just the right balance of insanity to fend off a crazier opponent.

By inviting anyone to cast a ballot, a “top two” primary system, in theory at least, would begin to dilute the influence of extremist elements in the primary process. And yes, that’s a nice way of saying the pelt-standard wing of the tea party might be marginalized.

Although gaining in popularity across the country, the “top two” primary system is hardly a perfect alternative since it opens the door for two candidates from the same party to ensure that one eventually wins the general election. A more viable system would be to allow open primaries, where voters could pick which primary to vote in and the top Republican and Democrat still would face off in the general election.

But whatever the shortcomings of “top two,” its arrival is the result of the Florida Legislature’s own failure to make elections fairer and more accountable.

For years, Florida politicians — most notably former Florida Secretary of State Jim Smith, a Republican and onetime Democrat — have endeavored to introduce an open primary system. So far, nada.

Had the Florida Legislature at least exhibited the attention span of a newt, it might have figured out that you can only grift the public for so long. Sooner or later, the body politic gets fed up. And then it stands up.

Tallahassee could have fixed the primary election problem years ago. But it was too busy cashing checks to notice the peasants just might be getting a bit annoyed.

For all its imperfections, you have to suspect the “top two” primary initiative has a very good chance of making its way on to the 2016 ballot. After all, just about any referendum that makes it easier to give the bum’s rush to politicians and send them out of office is warmly received.

The “top two” petition ought to get the Legislature’s attention — if anyone is awake in Tallahassee.

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