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.

The cost, estimated at $10 million, would probably be picked up by "soft money" donations largely banned from federal elections but allowed for some party functions.

With the contest between Obama and Clinton so close, a resolution of the controversies in Florida and Michigan, which have 366 delegates between them, could be critical to identifying a nominee who could win those vital swing states in the fall. Yesterday, Geller released the results of a poll of the voters who participated in the Jan. 29 primary that indicated 59 percent favor a mail-in revote. More troubling, he said, a quarter of those polled said that without a resolution of the standoff, they would either not vote for president or consider voting for the Republican nominee in protest.

"The people in Washington should take heed," Geller said. "If they continue to ignore the people's will, it will cost Democrats at all levels."

The revote plan has the backing of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "At this late hour, mail-in balloting would be the most practical and fair way to let Florida voters have a full say in the selection of their Democratic nominee," he said yesterday.

But after a three-hour meeting with Nelson on Tuesday night, all nine Florida House Democrats -- including Clinton supporters, Obama supporters and unaligned members -- declared the plan unworkable, especially if the ballots are sent out in June. That month, many Florida senior citizens will be traveling. Students will be out of state. And African American members worry that a vote-by-mail effort will penalize low-income voters, who may not receive ballots sent to outdated addresses.

"You've got people in my district who would absolutely not trust this," said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who has endorsed Clinton.

Above all, House members said, Floridians do not want to be burned again. "There are very raw nerves in Florida," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a Clinton supporter.

"We'll end up with not one contested election but two," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), an Obama supporter.

Florida's House delegation would like to see some negotiated apportionment of its delegates, based in part on the Jan. 29 results and in part on other factors, such as the popular vote totals after the primaries end in June.

"The only way the voters will feel the results are credible is if both candidates stand next to each other and say this is legitimate," said Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who is unaligned.

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