Advisory primary insults Floridians

Published May 18, 2007

The Democratic National Committee is under no obligation to rescue Florida from its imprudent decision to vault its presidential primary to Jan. 29. But this intramural squabble will inevitably move beyond the partisans and into the polling place, and that's where the showdown gets dicey. A statewide nominating caucus might satisfy the requirement for a later date, but it would also render the primary election as advisory only. That's an insult to voters and the worst of the available options.

As U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the state's top elected Democrat, puts it: "I don't see how making the Democratic primary nonbinding serves the interests of either voters or taxpayers."

It also would put Democrats, the party of "Make Every Vote Count," in the untenable position of writing a footnote for the Florida primary. Try squaring that with the push for paper ballots and voting-rights restoration for felons.

This is a wrestling match, no doubt. Both national parties set primary guidelines that the Legislature, prodded by Republican House Speaker Marco Rubio, violated with a sense of impunity. To absolve the state, then, is to invite the others to join the scramble to the front.

This is no way to conduct presidential primaries that produce well-vetted, well-rounded party nominees. That said, a politically diverse battleground state such as Florida should not be treated like an afterthought in the nomination of presidential candidates. The new DNC calendar was almost certain to produce more discord, as it provides no more orderliness, no better phasing of the campaign, and only marginal gains for the most populous states.

Rubio makes the case that the threat of lost delegates won't really matter to Florida for either political party, and he may be right. But the potential consequences are more severe for Democrats, who could lose all of their delegates and see candidates penalized for campaigning. That's what commands DNC chairman Howard Dean and Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman to proceed with caution.

Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign the election bill next week, and the time has long since passed for the national parties to move in a more deliberate direction in 2008 with the kind of regional primary rotation system recommended by the National Association of Secretaries of State.

So the Democrats are left to fight this out, with not many good options for compromise. Dean certainly didn't create this conflict with Florida, but he would be wise to find ways to minimize it. The primary system is a mess, even without Florida's mutiny, and he can't realistically expect candidates to stay out of a state so rich in campaign money and so critical on the path to the White House. Most of all, Dean cannot afford to disenfranchise any voters, especially those in Florida.