Florida ’08: Voters Still Making Their Voices Heard In Unsanctioned Primary

Dems agree not to campaign there, GOP's delegates will only half-count — but the state is on track for record turnout.

This election season has already been full of firsts: first female front-runner, first African-American front-runner and the first primary election that won’t actually count.

That’s right, Florida’s primary election is on Tuesday, and the National Democratic Party is refusing to recognize it. The party says it won’t seat any of the delegates at the nominating convention, and the candidates have all agreed not to campaign there. The National Republican Party has taken a softer approach to the Sunshine State, saying their party delegates only half-count. Their candidates have been actively campaigning in the state.

Florida incurred the wrath of the national political parties by moving its primary from March to January and messing up the political calendar. Michigan found itself in a similar situation earlier this month when it moved its primaries ahead of schedule. It’s like a game of political chicken, with the parties and states throwing dates at one another to see who will back down first. Guess what? Florida and Michigan lost.

“It’s sort of like a baseball team. If there was no manager for the baseball team, there might be a lot of people scrambling for who gets to bat first and you’ll never put together a good team,” said Rick Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University. “The Constitution, as the Supreme Court understands it, allows the political parties to be the managers.”

Florida and Michigan argued they were large states that represent America’s diversity better than early stalwarts such as Iowa and New Hampshire . But when the parties disagreed, the Democratic candidates signed a pledge saying they would not campaign in those states.

“It’s bizarre and crazy and it makes no sense,” Pildes said. “These are big important states, and their votes ought to count, but on the other hand the process has to have structure to it and someone has to be able to set the rules for when each state gets to go. And if the states violate the rules, there has to be punishment for that or the whole thing completely becomes unraveled.”

The mess has left Florida Democrats confused, with the state party left to sort out the mess. Many voters were left thinking there would be no primary, or that the votes from that primary wouldn’t be tallied up.

“People are asking, ‘I heard something on the news about delegates or people not campaigning here. Are our votes going to count?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ ” said Mark Bubriski of the Florida Democratic Party. “When people go to the polls and cast their ballot, there is a winner, a second-place winner, a third-place winner. It is going to be seen on national TV. It is going to be broadcast around the world.”

But since those votes won’t count in the overall race to pick a Democratic candidate, some Floridians are accusing their own party of disenfranchising them.

“A lot of us were disappointed in our Democratic National Committee because we felt that they didn’t value our voices as Florida voters,” said Ana Cruz, a Democratic activist. “There were quite a few of our elected officials that logged phone calls into [Party Chairman] Howard Dean and the DNC and said, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do this to our state and to our voters.’ ”

When they did, Cruz started her own grassroots campaign to support her candidate of choice: Senator Hillary Clinton. Through the Web site FloridaForHillary.com, she does a lot of the work a campaign’s field offices would do in the state — issuing press releases, seeking endorsements, putting together distribution lists and organizing fundraising efforts.

“It’s definitely a shadow campaign,” she said.

In many ways it’s a return to the old-school campaigns, back before candidates had millions of dollars and huge political machines behind them.

“It has really empowered Florida voters to mobilize on their own in their own respective areas, in their own respective regions, how they know best,” Cruz said.

Of course, it’s no surprise Florida has wound up being the political stepchild of this election. It was the very same state whose “hanging chads” and confusing ballots led to the Supreme Court deciding the outcome of the 2000 election. Despite this recent round of chaos, the state may be on track to redeem itself. Almost 900,000 Floridians have cast ballots since early voting began two weeks ago. More than 400,000 of those votes have been cast by Democrats. That’s more than four times the number of early votes cast back in 2004 — when the state actually helped choose the nominee.