What is it like being a perpetual punch line? Florida has known the feeling ever since the presidential election debacle of 2000. And now, it has the creeping feeling that the joke may be on it again as it tries to figure out how to get its delegates seated in the Democratic convention.
The options for Florida Dems seem to have boiled down to two: Let the results of its renegade Jan. 29 primary stand or, as Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean proposes, pay for a privately administered mail-in primary to replace the results of the earlier "unsanctioned" vote. (In January, the state had bucked DNC rules and set its own earlier primary date. The DNC cracked down, forbidding candidates to raise funds or campaign for that vote; furthermore, its 210 delegates would not be seated at the convention.)
On Wednesday, Florida's Democratic Party sent a proposal for a combination mail-in and in-person primary to Dean, the DNC and the Clinton and Obama campaigns. A draft seen by TIME sets up a 45-day process with all mail-in ballots due by June 3, primary day. While the proposal does not go into who exactly will pay for the procedure, it sets aside a one-month period for "fundraising." Florida State Democratic Party Press Secretary Alejandro Mayar said the plan includes all aspects of the mail-in scenario. Says Mayar, "It's a very detailed plan." The proposal had already been circulated among top state Democratic players for their input. "We're being 'shopped,' would be more accurate," said Florida Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller. Under DNC rules, any proposal would have to sit for 30 days to allow time for comment.
But the debacle is far from over. On Thursday, the first batch of comments to reach Karen Thurman, the head of Florida's Democratic Party whose name is on the proposal, was negative. Democratic members of the Florida House of Representatives had already released a statement saying that they are "opposed to a mail-in campaign or any redo of any kind." On Wednesday, Geller reiterated that Florida's delegates be seated and released a poll of 600 Florida Democrats that found that one in four would not vote for the Democratic nominee for President if Florida was disenfranchised. "A Democratic nominee for President will not win in this state if our votes are not counted and it will cause tremendous damage to our congressional candidates," Geller said. Meanwhile, the positions of the Obama and Clinton camps clash. She wants the results of the non-primary to stand as is. He refuses to honor that outcome, though he also seems to have legal concerns about a mail-in do-over. If the January results stand, Florida will hand 105 delegates to Clinton and 67 to Obama though the total needed to clinch the nomination would also rise.
Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called for a new vote. But Crist is a Republican and is making mischief for the Democrats. For one thing, he says he won't pay for a new vote. Indeed, other leading state Republicans including House Speaker Marco Rubio oppose efforts to include local election supervisors in any primary funded by the Democratic party. Like other G.O.P. leaders, Rubio is washing his hands and letting the Democrats battle it out. "If they can do it without the state being involved, fine." Rubio told TIME. "If not, my perception is that we've already had an election."
Time may be the most limiting factor. Under DNC rules, all primary results must be completed by June 10. Given that Florida has little experience with a mail-in primary, that could prove difficult, said Randy Nielson, a Palm Beach consultant for many statewide Republican causes. "Based on what we've seen so far this year in their convoluted nomination process, I think the DNC would have trouble organizing a one-car funeral procession let alone a statewide primary redo involving over 4.1 million voters," Nielson told TIME.
Florida Dems have an ally in Michigan, which is in the same boat. But in Michigan, only Clinton was on the ballot which adds a more pressing factor of fairness into its attempt at a revote. In the Sunshine State, both candidates were on the Florida ballot for a "non-primary" that drew a record number of Democrats to the polls. Clinton defeated Obama, and by party rules would take a percentage of the state delegates. Though a revote may likely change that number only slightly, ignoring even the possibility of a tiny change would be politically fraught in this season when every delegate counts.
With a redo option limited to a party-backed, privately run endeavor, the question of who pays and how do you verify comes center stage. "Obviously, finding $6 million [lying] around [is an obstacle]," says state representative Dan Gelber, a Democract from Miami Beach. "The other is getting enough consensus from people who generally look at this thing as to how it helps their favorite candidate. That, in some respects is harder than the money." "This is one of those situation where every solution has the potential for many unintended consequences," said Susan McManus, a political scientist from the University of South Florida in Tampa.
For Crist, a McCain backer who is considered by many as a short-list choice for vice president, it's a virtual no-lose situation. He has joined Michigan's Democratic Governor calling for both states' delegations to be seated and said he wouldn't oppose a party-run recount. But he insists the state's budget woes preclude its paying for any of this. Clinton's delegate gap would close if the January results stand, which would be just fine with Crist: she polls badly, compared to Obama, against his buddy McCain.
The prospect of again being in the glaring headlights of political controversy is not lost on state Democratic politicos. "This could be another example of Democrats snatching defeat out of the hands of victory," says Senator Geller, who has gone toe-to-toe with the DNC for months. Says McManus, "If I were Howard Dean, I don't think I'd plan a Florida vacation."