Florida Democrats make plea to candidates for vote-by-mail plan

Clinton and Obama camps are wary of the plan.

By Adam C. Smith, Wes Allison, and Jennifer Liberto, Times Staff Writers
Published March 13, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Pleading with the presidential candidates to take a serious look at their plan to salvage Florida's Democratic primary, the state party leaders on Wednesday proposed a new vote-by-mail primary overseen by an independent commission.

But with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday insisting that only a full-scale statewide primary could make up for not counting the Jan. 29 vote, and Sen. Barack Obama hostile to any mail plan, their proposal appeared to be on life support.

The stakes? Nothing less than Democrats winning or losing Florida in November, said state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman.

"Fingers have been pointed in every direction, but how we arrived at this breaking point is irrelevant," she wrote Obama, Clinton, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and top Democratic leaders in Florida. "The stark reality is that all Democrats lose if this is not resolved immediately."

"Because of the unprecedented nature of the national race," she wrote, "a situation that previously was a relatively minor, party-insider issue now has the potential to result in irreparable damage for years to come."

Even before the draft mail proposal had been released it had been attacked by the Obama campaign, brushed off by the Clinton campaign and opposed by Florida's Democratic U.S. House delegation. Many party activists expect Florida won't wind up with any say in the nomination until a special national party committee decides one way or another late this summer, but state party officials are trying to avoid that.

"It's not dead," said state party spokesman Mark Bubriski said of the mail proposal. "Why would we pull the plug on something that people haven't seen yet?" He acknowledged that it would be dead if either campaign directly tells the party it won't participate in such an election.

Obama campaign officials have made it clear they have no faith in a mail primary and Clinton said Wednesday that the only options are either counting the 1.75-million votes on Jan. 29 - out of the question, according to Dean and the Obama camp - or holding a new statewide Democratic primary, which is also out of the question, according to state party leaders.

In her letter to the campaigns, Thurman beseeched the candidates to seriously look at the mail primary proposal, calling it the only option for giving voters a say in the nominating process.

"Some have suggested that to resolve this issue Florida's delegation be split evenly between the candidates, and potentially restore the superdelegates' votes," Thurman wrote. "However, the DNC has informed the party that this is not an option under the rules. Additionally, it does not allow the voters to participate in the process."

Her letter was part sales pitch, part blueprint. Among the draft proposals:

- If the campaigns and Democratic leaders are interested, the state party will quickly appoint a commission "of respected and knowledgeable leaders to oversee detailed development of the entire process and ensure integrity throughout," as well as hire "reputable election management firms."

- The party will open 50 temporary offices around the state where registered Democrats could vote in person.

- Regular ballots would be mailed to all registered Florida Democrats 24 days before the June 3 due-date of the ballots. Ballots for Democrats living overseas, or in the military would be mailed out 45 days beforehand.

"Some people will vote for the first time. Many people will vote by mail for the first time. Both are important to Democratic victories in the future," the draft plan contends. "If the party increases the number of Democrats who vote and the number of people who vote by mail, we can get that much closer to victory in November."

- Ballots will not be forwarded. But when undeliverable ballots are returned to the party, a note will be sent to the forwarding address offering the voter the chance to correct his or her registration record and to receive a new ballot in time for the election.

Unlike the Obama campaign, Clinton has not been outrightly hostile to a vote-by-mail system, but the New York senator suggested Wednesday it was not viable.

"I don't care what Sen. Hillary Clinton said, I don't care what Sen. Barack Obama says," state Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller said. "We cannot do a physical revote, so the only way to count the votes is by a mail-in revote."

What is fair, easiest?

Geller touted a poll that suggested 59 percent of 600 Florida Democrats who voted on Jan. 29 support a mail-in primary. The Florida Democratic Party is expected to pay between $10,000 and $15,000 for the Kitchens Group poll, Geller's office confirmed.

However, top Obama campaign officials have been skeptical about Florida Democrats' ability to conduct a legitimate mail election and lukewarm about any possible revote. They've adopted a "wait and see" approach to plans to seat Florida and Michigan delegates.

"The easiest solution here would be some kind of fair seating of the delegations that is not reflective of those contests in January, that allows these states to participate in Denver, but does not advantage Sen. Clinton unfairly," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Clinton backer, said he would prefer counting the Jan. 29 result, and another statewide primary would be the next best option, but neither is feasible.

"In my view, at this late hour, mail-in balloting would be the most practical and fair way to let Florida voters have a full say in the selection of their Democratic nominee," Nelson said Wednesday.

The idea is catching on among DNC members, more of whom now believe it's important to hold new primary contests in Florida and Michigan, said Elaine Kamarck, who teaches politics at Harvard University.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.