Fla. Democrats may lose votes at convention

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic National Committee voted yesterday to strip Florida of all its presidential convention delegates, threatening to leave the state without a vote for the party's 2008 nominee unless it delays the date of its presidential primary election.

The ultimatum marks the most drastic attempt yet by party leaders to impose order among squabbling states that have sought to elbow their balloting closer to the front of the traditional election cycle.

The DNC rules and bylaws committee voted overwhelmingly to give Florida's state party 30 days to push back its primary contest by at least a week from Jan. 29, 2008, or risk losing accreditation for its 210 delegates to the party's nominating convention next summer in Denver.

A refusal to seat delegates from the nation's fourth-largest state could create divisive floor fights and a public spectacle at a convention normally choreographed to show party unity.

The Iowa caucuses traditionally mark the nation's first presidential contest, followed by a statewide primary in New Hampshire. The DNC recently agreed to allow Nevada and South Carolina to join the initial mix to bring more Hispanic and black voters into the early balloting, but it barred any other state from holding a binding presidential primary before the first Tuesday in February, which next year is Feb. 5.

Officials said after the vote yesterday that they took action against Florida in part to send a message to Michigan and other states that are considering pushing their party contests into January in violation of the party rules.

Karen Thurman, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, argued that she and her colleagues had done everything possible to adhere to the rules. But, she insisted, Republicans who dominate the Legislature in Tallahassee outmaneuvered them by moving the primary date up in a bill that contained crucial election reforms, forcing Democrats to vote for the Jan. 29 date. The Republican governor then signed it into law.

Members of the rules committee insisted that Florida has alternatives. The Jan. 29 vote could become a nonbinding "beauty contest" or straw vote for Democrats, they noted, to be followed in February by a separate primary, by party caucuses, mail-in vote or other system that would meet the national party's calendar rules.

Thurman said a mail-in balloting program would cost $7 million to $8 million, however, and that the money is not available. "This is a difficult situation for all of us," she said.

Jon Ausman, a DNC member from Florida, said the state party has investigated setting up 150 party caucuses in February. Although the plan would cost less than $1 million, he warned that caucuses would inevitably draw only a fraction of the state's 4 million Democrats and would disenfranchise the 190,000 Floridians who cast absentee ballots.

Donna Brazile, a delegate from Washington, said she hesitated to offer the Florida party "wiggle room" on its primary date. "Some people will moan, but we have to follow the rules," she said.

Bob Drogin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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