Democratic revote may be by mail

Florida may yet put its stamp on this year's Democratic convention.

By Wes Allison, Times Staff Writer
Published March 7, 2008

WASHINGTON - Forget the notion of Florida Democrats packing schools and fire halls for an Iowa-style caucus, or lining up at their local precincts to choose between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.

If Florida Democrats take one more shot at making their voices heard in this tick-tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the most likely scenario will be balloting by mail.

With Obama and Clinton nearly tied in the race for delegates, and with opportunities dwindling for either to pull away before the convention in August, pressure is building for Florida and Michigan to take a mulligan.

Both states lost their delegates for holding primary elections earlier than Democratic Party rules allowed. Thursday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida's senior elected Democrat, reversed course and called for a new primary election.

He also demanded that the Democratic National Committee pay for it, even though DNC chairman Howard Dean has said no.

"With two outstanding candidates battling so closely for their party's nomination, there's no way you can tell nearly 2-million Florida voters they don't count," said Nelson, the de facto head of the state party,

Nelson supports Clinton, who won the January primaries in Florida and Michigan, and he has argued that Clinton should get to count the delegates she would have won. That's anathema to Obama, since none of the Democrats campaigned there.

In seeking a new primary, Nelson said, "We can't go on and ignore two of the largest and most important states."

Michigan Democrats are considering a primary or caucus. But Florida Democrats contend a caucus would be too exclusive and potentially confusing. The state party has ruled it out, spokesman Mark Bubriski said Thursday.

The state party also has essentially ruled out holding another traditional primary election. It may cost up to $25-million, and the Republican-led Legislature would have to approve it by next week to meet the 90-day preparation period required by state law, Bubriski said.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist said he would sign the bill, but he and House Speaker Marco Rubio have made clear the state won't pay for it.

And despite Nelson's insistence that the DNC foot the bill, it had less than $3-million in the bank at the start of the year.

"We can't afford to do that," Dean said Thursday on CBS's The Early Show. "That's not our problem. We need our money to win the presidential race."

Meanwhile, 15 Florida counties - serving half the state's 10-million voters - are replacing their touch-screen machines to comply with a new state law requiring paper ballots.

Some of those counties, including Pinellas, may not have the new optical scan machines ready in time for a second Democratic primary, which DNC rules say must be held by June 10.

Plus, many counties have elections in the next couple months.

"It's not working for me," said Kathy Dent, elections chief in Sarasota County and president of the state Association of Supervisors of Elections. "We would be looking at a train wreck."

That leaves election by mail. Though foreign to Florida, the system is used in several states, most notably Oregon. Florida Democrats began drafting a plan to hold a vote-by-mail election last year, when they were considering ways to comply with party rules.

If state Democratic leaders now choose that route, the party would likely set an election date in May or June and send ballots to each of the state's 4-million registered Democrats at least 10 to 14 days beforehand.

"It's the only option we have," said state House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.

"A caucus is not inclusive enough, a primary is way too expensive and probably impossible to do, and a nominating convention won't work."

A spokesman for Nelson said the senator favors a traditional primary, but his statement Thursday didn't rule out an election by mail. His staff is researching that alternative and is talking to officials from Oregon.

Oregon began mail-in balloting for all elections 10 years ago. Concerns about fraud and voter coercion proved largely unfounded, and surveys by the University of Oregon have shown 80 percent of voters prefer it.

The state also enjoys higher-than-average voter turnout. Priscilla Southwell, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and leading expert in voting by mail, said that's especially true for special elections when only one race or issue is on the ballot, as Florida's would be.

Because the vote-by-mail primary would be conducted by the Democratic Party, not the state, the plan would not need the Legislature's approval.

But even if Nelson and other Florida Democratic leaders decide it's a good idea, it's not automatic. Any plan must be submitted to the DNC and, after a 30-day public comment period, approved by the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Ballots must be printed and shipped to military and other absentee Democrats in time for them to respond.

And, of course, the Democrats must find funding.

"We're still trying to gauge how realistic this is, if there's any money at all, and if there's any energy out there," Bubriski said. "There's still a lot to be figured out, and it may take awhile."

Last summer, the Florida party estimated a mail-in election would draw about 1-million voters and cost $4-million to $5-million. But postage and other costs have risen, as has interest.

Party officials say they now would expect as many as 3-million Florida Democrats to participate, at a cost of up to $6-million.

Gelber and others said they hope a variety of sources would contribute, including the DNC, private donors and the Obama and Clinton campaigns.

"It's the only option out there, and frankly it's pretty darn good," Gelber said.

Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Illinois senator would support any fair remedy that meets DNC rules. He's opposed only to allowing the Jan. 29 primary to count.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said that the primary should count and that it's too early to begin considering alternatives.

But, he added, "We certainly believe that given how well we did in those states, that were there to be a primary, we would have a good opportunity to do well again."

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Will Van Sant and researcher Melissa August contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at wallison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.