Why We Stood Up to Florida

By Donna Brazile
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Last Saturday, the Democratic National Committee's rules and bylaws committee voted to enforce its rules. It was hardly an extraordinary act, although you wouldn't know it from the furious reaction that ensued in some quarters.

Why the uproar?

It's simple: state envy. Just look at what one governor said recently regarding her state moving its primary forward in 2008. "Holding an early presidential preference election attracts more presidential candidates, staff and media to Arizona," said Gov. Janet Napolitano, "increasing Arizona's sales tax revenues and promoting Arizona's hotels, restaurants and businesses." At least she was honest.

As a member of the DNC's rules and bylaws committee, I understand why states such as Arizona, Michigan, Ohio and Wyoming, and even the District of Columbia, crave the media attention and financial resources that holding an early presidential contest draws. But the nominating system should not be determined by a state's economic development plan or a desire to have candidates focus on parochial issues.

Our nominating process is supposed to yield the best possible candidates for the most powerful position in the world. Unfortunately for all of us, it is a deeply flawed system in desperate need of reform. Recent proposals to create a regional rotation system in 2012, or the "Delaware Plan" to allow smaller states to go first, should be on the table for discussion starting this fall.

Once upon a time, presidential candidates and campaigns could rely on a nominating system that was easy to understand. Though envious of the role that Iowa and New Hampshire played in winnowing the field, most states abided by the calendar set by national party rules and waited their turn. But while the rules afforded clarity, they lacked inclusiveness. Everyone knew that when showtime started, only a few voters would be allowed on stage. And those folks, while deeply knowledgeable and passionate about their responsibility, just didn't represent the diversity of our party and our country.

The DNC tried to address this problem by letting two states join Iowa and New Hampshire in the coveted "pre-window" period before Feb. 5. States were invited to apply, and 12 of them, plus the District of Columbia, did so. The process was fair and democratic. Florida, which had a chance to become "first in the South," did not apply. Now it is asking for another chance.

In the end, the DNC chose Nevada and South Carolina to bring further regional, racial and economic diversity to the "pre-window" primary period. Florida's plan to move its primary forward represented a unilateral move that would completely disrupt the system on which everyone had agreed. The rules and bylaws committee had no choice but to enforce the rules. Our recommendation is not the end of the line for Florida. Indeed, the state has 30 days to bring its plan into compliance.

Despite claims to the contrary, the DNC is on firm legal ground. The question was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, when it ruled that the national parties, not the states, determine the rules governing their respective presidential nominating processes. Failure to apply the rules would have been an affront to the states that adhered to them -- and an invitation for more states to break them. Even after our firm action, the Michigan House went ahead and approved a measure this week to move the state's primary up to Jan. 15, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm (a Democrat) said she will sign it. Wyoming is still making noises about moving its date to Jan. 5.

Starting in January and perhaps ending on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, tens of millions of Americans in as many as 24 states will go to the polls. Candidates are raising record sums of money, and outside organizations are likely to spend even more to influence the process. We've never had a presidential campaign season like the one we're watching. It's time for both parties to take steps to reform the process.

As we begin to contemplate the calendar for 2012, and the rules that will govern that process, both major parties must craft a system that makes sense for voters and candidates. We can begin by setting a reasonable starting date -- I suggest the time when the snow gives way to tulips and daffodils. We can make sure the nominating schedule does not unfairly favor the rock stars of politics. And we must make sure the campaign finance laws allow more than just the candidates with deep pockets and ties to big donors to be competitive.

Perhaps by 2012 both major parties will commit to reforming the nominating process to give as many people as much of a voice as possible. We're long overdue for a rational system to elect a president of the United States.

The writer, who managed Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, is a member of the rules and bylaws committee of the Democratic National Committee.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company