Politics & Government

Opposition from all quarters to Florida's primary plan

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Karen Thurman discusses her party's latest plan on Thursday.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Karen Thurman discusses her party's latest plan on Thursday. Bill Cottrell / Tallahassee Democrat / AP

WASHINGTON — The Florida Democratic Party's unprecedented proposal to conduct a do-over presidential primary by mail sustained several potentially fatal blows Thursday, leaving state party leaders all but out of alternatives.

The state's entire Democratic House delegation opposed the plan, Barack Obama and representatives of Hillary Clinton expressed reservations, and state officials said Florida law would prohibit them from authenticating voters' signatures.

Florida party chair Karen Thurman, who has said any deal would require both candidates' assent, acknowleged that the hurdles may be insurmountable, though she said she would wait until Monday to review comments on the plan.

"I have a feeling this is getting closer to not, than yes,'' Thurman said in Tallahassee.

Added state Sen. Steve Geller, a South Florida Democrat: "It's more likely than not it does fall apart now.''

In Washington, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Clinton supporter and the sole member of Florida's Democratic congressional delegation to back the vote-by-mail plan, buttonholed both presidential candidates on the Senate floor and impressed on them the need to resolve the issue and seat Florida's delegates, a spokesman for Nelson said.

Both agreed there was a need, but neither committed to a specific plan, spokesman Dan McLaughlin said.

Nelson has also talked with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean about cutting the size of Florida's convention delegation in half — as the Republican National Party did to punish its Florida party for holding its primary too early — and assigning the delegates based on the Jan. 29 primary.

Democrats have been struggling to find a way to avoid a bitter convention fight over whether to seat delegations from Florida and Michigan at the party's national convention this summer.

Last summer, the national party stripped both states of their delegates because they held primaries in January, in violation of national party rules.

Florida state party officials said they believed the mail-in primary was their best option at meeting DNC rules, but it appeared shaky after running into a wall of opposition Thursday.

Florida's nine Democratic House members, who have split with Nelson and the state party in Tallahassee, renewed their opposition to the plan.

Issuing a joint statement, they said they don't believe the mail-in vote is "a realistic option'' and they "remain opposed to a mail-in ballot election or any new primary election in Florida of any kind." Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat and a key Florida advisor to Clinton, called the vote-by-mail proposal "a disaster'' and said he believes the Clinton camp shares his opinion.

The Clinton camp signaled that it prefers a state-run conventional primary over a mail-in vote, but state party officials have said the cost — at least $25 million — rules that out.

Obama, whose campaign has raised questions about mail-in elections, told reporters on a flight from Chicago to Washington that "the logistical concerns about a mail-in system are not unique to us.''

Two of Florida's largest newspapers weighed in against the plan. The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale said Florida should give up any hopes of having a role in selecting the party's nominee and instead be willing to endorse whoever is selected in the end.

"It's time for Florida, and the state's Democrats, to let this whole debacle go," the paper said in an editorial. "The only fair, face-saving way out of this mess is for Florida Democrats to accede to the delegate ban until a nominee is chosen. Once that's done, the nominee should invite the Florida delegation to be seated at the national convention, and to cast their votes in the name of party unity."

The Miami Herald panned the proposal as well, calling it an "absurd idea...a last-ditch, Hail Mary pass that has failure written all over it."

"The politicians who created this mess must come up with a better plan to fix it than a flawed re-vote that replaces a perfectly valid election," the editorial said.

In Tallahassee, the key complication that arose Thursday involved the verification of voter signatures.

"There's no authority under Florida law that would allow county supervisors of election or the state to verify signatures in an election of a state party," said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Florida's secretary of state and Division of Elections.

Geller arrived at Gov. Charlie Crist's office at noon with a stack of statutes he said authorized state or county election officials to verify those signatures.

And Mark Bubriski, a spokesman for Thurman, said Crist has the authority to order Secretary of State Kurt Browning to make the signatures available to the Democrats or their representatives.

But Ivey, reached again late Thursday, said that was not the case.

"The Department of State cannot share those signatures — they are not public record,'' Ivey said. "We cannot do anything and even the local supervisors couldn't be able to verify anything unless there was a new statute.''

Thurman acknowledged the problem, saying that a new state law or an executive order might be necessary and that would be a "huge hurdle."

"This is by no means a done deal,'' she said. "We are simply putting on the table the only solution we can present as a party.''

The plan calls for sending ballots to every registered Democrat in the state and opening 50 regional election offices to coordinate and collect ballots from party members who prefer to hand deliver their votes.

The primary would be administered by one or more private companies, with supervision by a private accounting firm, state party officials and representatives of both candidates.

The estimated $10 million to $12 million cost would be offset by newly raised funds, Thurman said.

Several states, most notably Oregon, already conduct major elections by mail, but nothing of this magnitude has ever been attempted in Florida.