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Florida Dems face penalty for early vote

Once again, Florida is embroiled in a dispute over vote counting in the presidential election.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Once again, Florida is embroiled in a dispute over vote counting in the presidential election.

Seven years after Democrats lost a fight over recounting Florida votes in the disputed 2000 election, the national Democratic Party is poised to strip the state of delegate votes in the 2008 nomination battle. The problem: State Democrats want to hold their primary too early.

Other states are rushing to get to the start of the primaries pack, too, and Florida will be the first test of the Democratic National Committee's resolve to restore order to the schedule it set last year. Michigan and New Hampshire also are considering whether to move up their voting in violation of the party rules.

Campaigning confusion
The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets Saturday and will announce sanctions for Florida, members of the committee said. Several party officials said they want to take a tough stand against Florida to send a message to other states.

The shifting dates have left the party's presidential candidates in limbo about where they should be campaigning, with the first votes to be cast in less than five months.

Advisers to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has a wide lead in Florida polls, said she will go wherever elections are being held. But the DNC has threatened to penalize candidates who campaign in states that violate the rules, and other candidates are waiting to see how the dispute shakes out.

Party rules say states cannot hold their primary contests before Feb. 5, except for Iowa on Jan. 14, Nevada on Jan. 19, New Hampshire on Jan. 22 and South Carolina on Jan. 29. Florida ignored that calendar and passed a law setting its date for Jan. 29.

The rules state that a violation of the calendar triggers sanctions - the Democratic congressional delegation and DNC members from Florida will lose their votes for the nominee at next year's convention in Denver. And the Rules and Bylaws Committee will decide whether to strip Florida of anywhere from half to all of it 185 other delegates to the convention.

Florida defiant
The state party would have 30 days to change its plan before the sanctions would go into effect, but instead Florida's Democratic lawmakers say they will fight back. Sen. Bill Nelson told reporters in a conference call Friday that he'll lead the delegates to Denver whether or not the DNC plans to let them in.

"We are quite concerned that Florida Democrats are going to lose their right to vote," Nelson said. "And of all states, we have the sensitivity of this because of what we have gone through."

Florida is among 31 states that will be presenting their voting plans Saturday, but it's the only one that is expected to be found violating the party rules, DNC officials said.

Michigan's Legislature has taken up a bill that would move its contest to Jan. 15, but the state party submitted a proposal that for now describes a caucus on Feb. 9. New Hampshire's secretary of state says he may move up the state's primary, but for now the party has submitted a plan for Jan. 22, with the notation that the date is subject to change.

In New Hampshire, the threat of sanctions doesn't seem to be raising much concern among party officials who are more concerned about maintaining their role as the nation's first primary.

"If that means we lose some delegates, that means we lose some delegates," said Kathy Sullivan, the former director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party who will be part of the team presenting the state's plan Saturday. "We'd love to go to Denver. But if we don't go, we don't go. I can't get that excited about it."

That's not the case in Florida.

Disenfranchising decision?
The state's congressional delegation also sent a letter to DNC Chairman Howard Dean threatening a voting rights investigation in response to sanctions. However, national Democratic officials insist there is no legal basis to force the party to seat delegates in violation of its rules, and Nelson could not say what law the DNC would be violating or where the case could be pursued.

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was also on the conference call and said, "We should not be disenfranchising voters based on arcane political party rules and people stamping their foot and insisting on getting their way instead of making sure that we can move forward with an election that has a united party in one of the most important states in the country."

In 2000, the election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore was held up for a recount in Florida. The Supreme Court stopped the recount, and Bush won the state by 537 votes.

Tina Flournoy and Donna Brazile, who worked on Gore's campaign and serve on the Rules and Bylaws Committee, said Florida has the chance to have its votes counted if it follows the rules. The DNC tried to persuade the party to hold a separate contest Feb. 5 or later, perhaps by mail, to determine which candidates would get the delegates.

"Disenfranchisement is not just an abstract term," Flournoy said. "It shouldn't be tossed around for political gain."