Disputed primaries steal focus

Times Staff Writers

Florida Democrats, searching for a way out of their mess of a presidential contest, unveiled a detailed plan Thursday for rerunning the state’s primary election by mail. There was one big problem: Hardly anyone who mattered liked the idea.

Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York rejected it -- one of the few things the candidates have agreed on lately. Florida’s entire House Democratic delegation panned it. Even the plan’s architect, state party Chairwoman Karen L. Thurman, acknowledged that there were enormous obstacles to carrying it out.

The fight over contests in Florida as well as Michigan adds another layer of tension for Democrats, who are increasingly nervous about the battle for the party’s presidential nomination. Under the worst-case scenario, some fear, Democrats’ summer convention could turn from a unity pageant into a fiasco that severely damages the party and its chances of taking the White House after eight years.

Even if the issue is resolved before the August convention, some fret that time spent focused on a somewhat arcane scheduling dispute is time that the Democrats are not devoting to issues -- like the economy, healthcare and the Iraq war -- that matter a lot more to most voters.


“Process issues are losers,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who is not affiliated with a candidate. “Nobody cares about it. It doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t help them with their daily life.”

The dispute centers on January primaries that Florida and Michigan held earlier than national party rules allowed. As punishment, the Democratic National Committee said the states’ delegations would not be seated at the party’s convention, at which either Clinton or Obama, presumably, will be formally nominated.

Many Democrats want to lift that punishment because it risks alienating voters in two of the country’s largest states.

The uncertainty is taking a toll.

In one hopeful development for the party, there were signs Thursday that an end to the impasse may be close at hand in Michigan. But that still leaves Florida, home of the controversial 2000 presidential recount. One poll in Florida this week found that 31% of Democrats said they would be less likely to vote for the party’s presidential nominee if the state’s delegation was not seated at the convention.

A variety of proposals have been floated, mostly serving the interests of one candidate or the other. Every option has its impediments, every idea its detractors. Possibilities are percolating on the Internet and behind closed doors.

The options being discussed include:

Honoring the results of the January primaries. This is what Clinton wants, because she won both the Florida and Michigan contests. Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan, and neither candidate actively campaigned in either state.


After Clinton said in remarks broadcast Wednesday that the Michigan results were “fair” and should be counted, Obama said: “I think you could ask my 6-year-old whether that was fair and she would probably be able to say, ‘No, it isn’t.’ ”

Holding do-over primaries. Many Obama supporters say this is not fair because it amounts to changing the rules in the middle of the game. The states knew the potential consequences of violating party rules and should not get a second chance at voting, they say.

Clinton, who has done best in states with primaries rather than caucuses, favors this option if the January results are not honored. The Florida Democratic Party ruled out this idea because of its high cost.

But on Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Michigan Democrats were close to an agreement with the Clinton and Obama campaigns to hold a do-over primary in that state. Michigan Democrats need to act quickly because the Legislature -- whose House is run by Democrats and Senate by Republicans -- will have to sign off on the deal, to be financed with private funds. Members leave at the end of the month for a two-week spring break.


Holding do-over caucuses. Obama has generally done better than Clinton in caucuses. Clinton and other critics say caucuses are undemocratic, in part because it is hard for some voters to attend the meetings at which ballots are cast.

That difficulty could be eased by holding so-called firehouse caucuses. These would differ from the sort of caucuses held in Iowa and Nevada in that balloting would take place all day, not during a limited window of time, and voting would be done by secret ballot.

Arranging a mail-in vote. The Florida party’s plan would mail ballots to the state’s 4.1 million Democrats. Voters could mail the ballots back or turn them in at regional voting centers.

The idea is backed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a Clinton supporter, but opposed as unrealistic by Florida’s House Democratic delegation, which includes supporters of both Clinton and Obama. Critics of a mail ballot warn that it would be hard to verify signatures to avoid fraud; some doubt whether it would be legal for Florida’s election officials to oversee a party-run primary. Critics also worry that many low-income people would not receive ballots, because their addresses tend to change frequently.


“The hurdles are so high, you’d have to be an Olympian to jump them, and you might not make the last one,” said Susan A. MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

Allotting and seating the Florida and Michigan delegates without a revote. Obama supporters in Michigan have proposed evenly splitting the contested delegates; Clinton’s supporters say that would be unfair, because she won 55% of the vote there. Others have proposed more complicated formulas for allotting delegates or reducing their voting power at the convention.

Another complication involves funding. Any option involving a revote -- by primary, caucus or mail -- would cost money. Michigan’s Democratic governor and Florida’s Republican governor say their states will not pay for a do-over. The national party also has said it will not pay.

Politicians in both states are talking about raising money from private sources, but critics say it is not appropriate to have a core political function funded by private donors.


“Democratic Party officials and presidential candidates who want the primaries rerun can be expected to be indebted and obligated to those wealthy individuals or private-interest groups who make huge contributions to pay for any revotes,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group advocating campaign finance reform.




Hook reported from Washington, Barabak from San Francisco.





Cumulative totals:

Barack Obama... 1,602

Hillary Rodham Clinton... 1,497



Source: Associated Press