Florida's Mail-In Primary Plan Opens Rifts in Washington and Tallahassee

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Florida Democratic Party is pushing forward with a plan for recontesting its primary, largely with mail-in ballots, despite vigorous opposition from Democrats in the state's congressional delegation as well as concerns from the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Florida officials have struggled to come up with a way to redo a January primary that was invalidated by the Democratic National Committee because it was held too early in the process. Opponents of the plan, which could be unveiled as early as today, fear that it would disenfranchise voters and cause another fiasco in a state still haunted by the debacle of the 2000 presidential election.

How Florida and Michigan, which is also considering how to redo its primary, resolve their situations has become a critical issue in the nomination battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) because the states carry enough delegates and stature to potentially sway the deadlocked race.

Clinton took a hard line on the controversy yesterday, saying she would absolutely not accept a negotiated apportionment of Florida's delegates, as the state's House delegation has suggested. Her win Jan. 29 would give her a net gain of 38 delegates, cutting Obama's 106-delegate lead by more than a third.

"In my view there are two options: Honor the results or hold new primary elections," Clinton told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce yesterday.

But Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said "we have real deep concerns about a mail-in election." Plouffe wondered if a mail-in vote would be fair to all voters and whether it could be pulled off, given that Florida has never done it before.

All sides of the debate agree that Democrats need to find a way to seat Florida's huge slate of delegates at the party's convention in August, and Democratic leaders in Tallahassee see few alternatives to the mail-in plan.

"I don't care what the Clinton or Obama campaigns think," said the Florida Senate's Democratic leader, Steve Geller. "I don't represent Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I'm the Senate Democratic leader of Florida. My goal is to get the votes of 4 million Florida Democrats to count."

In a document obtained by The Washington Post, dated yesterday, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen L. Thurman urged Florida's Democratic members of Congress, along with Clinton and Obama, to consider the vote-by-mail proposal carefully.

"Because of the unprecedented nature of the national race, a situation that previously was a relatively minor, party-insider issue now has the potential to result in irreparable damage for years to come," she wrote, before detailing at length a mail-in-primary process.

Under her timetable, fundraising and a public comment period would begin today and end April 12, about when ballots go to production. Overseas and military ballots would be sent out April 19. Fifty temporary election offices would be set up May 1 in poor areas to ensure access to voters with mail difficulties. On May 9, the bulk of the ballots would be shipped out, and the election would officially be on June 3, a day shared with Montana and South Dakota.

"We have reexamined every potential alternative again. Only one stands out as fair, open, practical and feasible at this time. We are positive that a combination vote-by-mail and in-person election can be conducted in the time available but only if Democratic leaders support the plan," the memo says.

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