Florida's vote-by-mail plan gains few fans

State party officials set to submit it to DNC.

By Adam C. Smith and Wes Allison, Times Staff Writers
Published March 11, 2008

For all the buzz about Florida Democrats gearing up for a statewide mail-in ballot, don't hold your breath.

Interviews with state and national Democratic leaders, as well as officials with the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama make clear that the idea of re-doing the Jan. 29 election using a ballot-by-mail system is not universally popular.

"The Democratic Party is going to run a mail-in election and they're going to police it and they're going to - I mean, I think it's a nightmare," senior Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod said Monday on MSNBC.

Yes, state party staffers are pushing ahead with a $10-million plan that could be submitted to the Democratic National Committee as early as this week. And yes, some high powered Clinton supporters, including strategist James Carville and Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jon Corzine of New Jersey say they can raise tens of millions of dollars to pay for do-over Democratic primaries in Michigan and Florida.

But the hurdles are immense for pulling off an enormously high stakes election within the next three months:

- Growing skepticism from the Obama campaign and from key supporters of the Illinois senator. They note that Oregon spent 10 years developing and building up to a statewide mail election.

"Does anyone really believe we're going to get this right? And does anyone really want another screwed up election in Florida?," asked Tallahassee City Commissioner Allan Katz, a DNC member and top Obama supporter.

- Divisions among Clinton supporters about whether a new election, mail or otherwise, makes sense. In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson is touting a vote-by-mail election, while U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is trashing the idea.

- Little help from the Democratic National Committee's chairman, Howard Dean, in reaching a compromise. Dean has yet to discuss the options with state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman.

- No consensus on even basic logistical and legal issues about whether the Democratic election should or must be run by the state. Gov. Charlie Crist says the state must run the election, but most Democratic leaders disagree.

Still, Nelson remains optimistic. His staff has been speaking with lawyers and elections officials in Oregon, which has used mail-in ballots statewide since 1998, and in Florida, including talks with state elections chief Kurt Browning.

The next step is submitting a plan to the DNC, which is expected to happen this week.

"In one week's time, we have gone from people saying 'impossible' to many people saying it's a strong possibility," said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson's spokesman. "We're very optimistic here. Now, what are the chances? I'm not going to put numbers on it. We realize there are so many things that could jump up."

Advocates of voting by mail see upside

The talk of do-over elections comes as the Democratic presidential primary heads toward a stalemate and the prospect that two important states, Florida and Michigan, will have had no voice in picking the nominee. The DNC stripped both states of all their delegates because they moved their primary dates to January, in violation of the national party's schedule.

The elections were held anyway, but with no delegates at stake the results don't count. Clinton won Florida by 17 percentage points, and won 55 percent of the vote in Michigan, where Obama's name was left off the ballot.

Florida's Democratic Party officials have been looking at the vote-by-mail idea for nearly a year as a way to comply with the DNC, but discarded it last year because they could not pay for it. Advocates of a mail-in vote see it as a way of getting Florida's delegates restored while at the same time building a voter contact list that could be a big help in the general election.

"There are a lot of pessimists out there who expect the Florida Democratic Party can't get the job done but in the past couple years we've proved them wrong time and time again," said Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski.

How would voting by mail work?

In votes by mail, voters sign their ballot and the signatures are matched against state registration records. Because Florida maintains a central database of those signatures, it may be possible for the Florida Democratic Party to pay the state elections office to verify the signatures or even process the ballots.

Given the intense media attention on the presidential race and Florida, the party estimates as many as 3-million of roughly 4-million Florida Democrats might participate. With the mailing and counting of ballots handled by an accounting firm, all registered Democrats would receive a ballot with return postage, and the party would open many as 50 regional offices to help voters who may not have received a ballot by mail.

"Because of how advanced our voter file is now we would be able to prevent people from voting more than once," said Bubriski. "We could pull it off, and it certainly wouldn't be a disaster."

State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota, the ranking Democrat on the state House ethics and elections committee, said an accounting firm could ensure the integrity of the election just as they do when corporations have mail-in elections for directors.

"I think some kind of mail ballot is probably the only practical way to pull this off," said Fitgerald, an Obama supporter. "But you're going to have to have buy-in from the DNC, the state party, and both the campaigns. Unless they agree on ground rules, and they're going to have to do it quickly, I don't see anything happening."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.