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State seizes primary position
Florida faces threat of irrelevancy by setting a Jan. 29 date against the parties' wishes.
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published May 4, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida muscled to the forefront of the presidential primary Thursday by setting a Jan. 29 election date against the wishes of political party leaders across the country.
Florida becomes the first of the mega states to hold a presidential primary, but now could face sanctions from national Democratic and Republican parties, which had carefully arranged the primary schedule.
The drama of choosing a new date nearly overshadowed the election system overhaul that also is part of the legislation approved Thursday.
After seven years as America's poster child for botched elections, Florida will abandon its multimillion dollar experiment in paperless touch-screen voting and switch to new machines that generate paper records.
The sweeping elections bill, which Gov. Charlie Crist has promised to sign, will ensure that voters in counties now using touch screen systems will cast ballots in 2008 on new optical scan machines that produce paper records.
"The right to vote is the foundation of our nation's democracy, and Florida voters can rest assured that they will have an election system they can believe in, " Crist said. "With an earlier presidential primary, Florida will now take its rightful place near the front of the line in determining the next leader of the free world."
But some local elections supervisors worry the Recount State is, once again, rushing too fast into a new system that would include, in addition to new machines, ballots customized for individual voters available countywide.
Meanwhile, the early primary date may create chaos in an already topsy-turvy national presidential nominating schedule.
South Carolina Republicans are set to hold their primary Feb. 2, but had promised to move theirs earlier than Florida no matter what. Doing so could prompt New Hampshire and Iowa to schedule their elections as early as December 2007, to guard their status as the earliest voting states.
South Carolina Democrats are supposed to hold their primary on Jan. 29, the same date as Florida.
The national parties are promising to punish any state that breaks the party rules, as Florida has, by scheduling a primary before Feb. 5, 2008. Both parties will lose half the delegates to the national convention, and the Democratic Party has said any candidate who campaigns in a state violating the schedule will forfeit all delegates won in that state.
Florida officials have dismissed such threats, arguing the state's population and wealth make it too important to ignore, no matter the party consequences.
But on Thursday evening, a spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, would not rule out skipping Florida's primary.
"The DNC and the Florida state party will arbitrate this and we will compete on the final field vigorously, " said Bill Burton, Obama's communications director.
And Will Prather of Fort Myers, a member of Obama's national finance team, said candidates will be reluctant to spend millions of dollars campaigning in Florida if they can't win any delegates. "People thought Florida would finally be relevant in the primary, " Prather said, "but the irony is Florida may wind up moot."
In Tallahassee, state House Democrats made a token effort on Thursday to shift the primary to Feb. 5 to comply with DNC rules, but Republicans in the majority have made it clear they don't care about losing delegates to the national convention.
"Right now we don't have any delegates. We have people that get invited to a big party where they drop a balloon and people wear funny hats, " said House Speaker Marco Rubio, who made scheduling an early presidential primary a top priority. "The truth of the matter is the nominee of either party is going to want to make sure they have not offended the big donors and the big activists in the most important state in the country."
Still, Florida Democratic party spokesman Mark Bubriski said the party is looking at options, including holding a separate presidential nominating contest later in the year. In that case, the Jan. 29 Democratic primary in Florida would not count in the nominating process.
Officials with the John Edwards campaign did not return calls about the repercussions of an early Florida primary, but Hillary Clinton isn't letting it bother her. She still plans to campaign in Florida May 21.
"We don't have any say in setting the primary schedule but we intend to compete in any state that holds a primary or caucus, " said Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee.
In the 1970s, Florida's March primary was among the earliest in the country, but that position eroded as more and more states moved earlier. For 2008, some 12 states, including California, New York and New Jersey, are scheduled to hold their primaries on Feb. 5, and at least seven others are looking to move up.
"Florida will be in the driver's seat when it comes to selecting the next president, " said state GOP chairman Jim Greer, who under RNC rules, will lose his status as a delegate for breaking the schedule. "Whoever wins Florida on Jan. 29 will have tremendous momentum to take all those states on Feb. 5."
Touch screens out
Since the virtually tied 2000 presidential election, Florida has struggled in elections. Counties spent hundreds of millions of dollars on touch-screen machines that soon will be obsolete now that state lawmakers have mandated replacements.
Secretary of State Kurt Browning said he's not worried about the short time frame for 15 counties now using touch screen machines to move to new technology.
"The supervisors will rise to the occasion, " Browning said. "They'll understand what their job is, they'll get the job done, and they'll do it very well
The 15 touch screen counties are Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Charlotte, Collier, Duval, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Martin, Sarasota and Sumter.
Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.
The election bill: Other provisions The bill contained a number of other provisions. Among them:
Outside groups registering voters would face fines for failing to quickly turn in forms to elections offices.
Filing complaints with the Florida Elections Commission will be harder because only people with firsthand knowledge of a problem may file a complaint.
People who sign petitions will have 120 days after the signatures are submitted to an elections office to remove their names.
Elected officials will no longer have to resign from office to run for federal office. In other words, a presidential candidate could tap Gov. Crist as his vice presidential candidate and Crist would not have to resign as governor.