JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – On the deadline to register to vote or change party affiliation before Florida's Aug. 30 primary election, voter officials in Clay, Duval and Nassau counties report that more than 6,500 Democratic voters have switched to the Republican Party since the first of the year. Nearly 4,000 of those made the change within the past two months.
While some might first assume they're changing because of presidential politics, political observers believe most of those Democrats made the swap in order to vote in the closed Republican primary. The GOP has more contested elections, including the high-profile race for state attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit, which is made up of those three counties.
One voter who showed up at Jacksonville's Supervisor of Elections Office Monday to change her registration Monday so she can voter against incumbent State Attorney Angela Corey, whose only opponents other than a write-in candidate are also Republicans.
"I’m switching to Republican so I can vote in the closed primary which is for the State Attorney’s Office race," Alana Tutwiler said.
There are contested primary races for the U.S. Senate, some congressional and state legislative races on both the Republican and Democratic sides. If there is a no opponent in the general election, the primary is opened to all voters. But if there will be an opponent in November, party primaries are closed to only voters registered in that party, even if that opponent is an unfunded, no-party opponent, or even a write-in candidate.
"Whatever party you are registered for, you will only be able to vote for those people that are on the ballot of your party," Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner said.
That's the case in the State Attorney's Office race, where Republicans Melissa Nelson and Wesley White are running against Corey. There's no Democrat or other candidate in the race, but there is a write-in candidate -- a Republican who admits he supports Corey. Critics change Corey's campaign manager at the time helped made this happen to keep the primary closed.
There are other closed races on primary ballots for some voters in northeast Florida, including the 4th Judicial Circuit state attorney and Florida House Districts 11 and 16.
For Democrats, minor party candidates and those with no party affiliation, there will be many non-partisan city and county races, along with a statewide constitutional amendment on solar energy and Duval County's ballot question on the a half-cent sales tax for 30 years to pay down Jacksonville's $2.7 billion pension deficits.
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Supervisor Mike Hogan said this kind of party switching has happened before -- including the 1991 race for mayor of Jacksonville.
"We had two guys running for mayor and they were both Democrats. This was before unitary elections, and about 3,000 Republicans changed from Republican to Democrat so they (could) vote in the mayor’s race," Hogan said.
But this party switching also has unintended consequences. If someone becomes a Republican to vote in the state attorney's race, they won't be able to vote for other Democrats in the primary. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Democrat running for re-election in the 5th Congressional District, is talking to voters about how that could impact her.
"I said, 'Do you know that you can't vote for me?'" Brown said she told a supporter. "Her eyes got (as) big as her head. She said, 'They didn't tell me that.' I said, 'You've got to switch back.'"
The impact on Brown is exactly why Tutwiler waited until the last day before she made the decision to switch parties.
"I’m aware of that and that’s why I waited until the last minute ... because I was very torn as what to do," Tutwiler said.
News4Jax has also received reports of people who switched parties, but still received absentee ballots in the mail for their former party. Elections officials said that's because the old ballots had been processed before some people switched parties. Those voters should automatically get an updated ballots with their current party when the change is processed through the system.
Voters who are unsure of their registration status can use the lookup tool on the state election website at dos.myflorida.com/elections. They also can contact their local Supervisor of Elections Office or contact the main Voter Assistance Hotline at 866-308-6739.