Democrats fail to heed lesson: Don't leave anything to chance in Florida

The Baltimore Sun

It seems increasingly likely that Florida's 2008 Democratic presidential primary will mean absolutely nothing, causing shorter-than-usual lines at the polls. The Democratic National Committee hasn't budged from its threat to strip the state of its 210 convention delegates as punishment for advancing the date of the vote to Jan. 29.

At first, the dispute looked like a fiendishly clever ploy to make the party leadership appear self-destructive and incompetent, thereby lulling Republicans into a sense of complacency. Now it's obvious that the DNC really is self-destructive and incompetent, stubbornly insisting on perpetuating the charade that allows only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold nominating contests before Feb. 5.

The party also extracted signed promises from each of the major candidates agreeing not to campaign after September in any state that strays from the official DNC primary schedule.

That in itself is no great loss to the citizenry, since most of the candidates give basically one stock speech, whether they're in Dubuque or Daytona Beach. These performances are only slightly less enthralling on C-SPAN than they are in person.

Still, considering the starring role that Florida played in the botched election of 2000, you'd think that leaders of both parties would take great pains not to confuse or discourage the voters here. And you'd be wrong.

It was the Republican-led Legislature that defiantly moved up the date of the presidential primary, prompting the national GOP to warn that it would withhold half of the state's convention delegates.

The switch to Jan. 29 put Florida Democrats in an even worse jam, although they got no sympathy from party boss Howard Dean or the DNC. As things now stand, the presidential candidates would accrue exactly zero delegates from Florida's early Democratic primary, reducing the event to a lame straw poll.

Party leaders have given state Democrats until the end of the month to come up with an alternative plan for selecting its convention delegates. The options being contemplated are even more tedious and uninspiring than a primary campaign.

One idea is to stage regional caucuses in congressional districts throughout Florida from February through June. Talk about electricity in the air!

You're thinking: Caucuses? Like they have in Iowa? Yep - only bigger, longer and duller.

The political caucus format has a history going back to the birth of the republic, but in a place as manic and full of distractions as modern Florida, nobody except diehard party regulars would show up.

Another plan being discussed by some Democrats is to conduct a mail-in presidential primary. That would ensure the possibility of disarray and scandal, for which Florida elections are infamous.

The simple chore of verifying a relatively modest number of absentee ballots has proved overwhelming for some local elections supervisors. Imagine the high drama if millions of mailed-in votes had to be authenticated in Tallahassee before the national Democratic nominee could be selected.

If nothing else, it would teach the boneheads at the DNC a lesson they should have learned seven years ago: Don't leave anything to chance in Florida.

Regardless of how the delegate issue is resolved, Democrats remain stuck with the problem of persuading the faithful to flock to a primary that probably won't count.

"There will be a vote, and a vote that's going to be taken, and I'm encouraging all of my Democrats to show up," said state Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman.

A strong turnout, she added, would "send a message." It would also be a miracle worthy of the grotto of Lourdes.

Not that schlepping to the polls would be a waste of time for Floridians of any party. There are important municipal elections on the ballot in many counties, as well as the controversial statewide initiative that would restructure property taxes for many homeowners.

Undoubtedly, though, the presidential contests were to be the marquee attraction Jan. 29. State Republicans might still get a decent surge if the party can hang on to some of its national delegates, but the Democrats are in big trouble if their main incentive for showing up is to display their loyalty.

Face it. A nonbinding election is about as compelling as a nonbinding Lotto drawing, without the ping pong balls.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

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