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Can the Democratic Party ignore Florida's primary?

Florida Democrats filed suit against the national party for imposing sanctions against the state for its early primary.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 16, 2007



WASHINGTON

Does a national political party have to count every vote in choosing its nominee for president? Or can it enforce its rules in a way that leaves some voters ­– or even an entire state – out of the process? Those questions are at the heart of a lawsuit unfolding in Florida that is the latest volley between states and the national parties over the scrambled primary calendar.

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The lawsuit, filed this month by Florida's leaders in Congress, accuses the Democratic National Committee and state officials with the unconstitutional and "wholesale disenfranchisement" of Florida's 4 million Democratic voters.

The plaintiffs want the US District Court in Tallahassee, Fla., to undo the DNC's sanctions against Florida for its early primary date. Those sanctions stripped Florida of all its delegates to the 2008 Democratic convention, where the national delegate count determines the party's White House nominee.

Without delegates, the lawsuit alleges, the results of Florida's Jan. 29 primary will be moot, denying a voice to all of the state's Democratic voters – and particularly its blacks, who disproportionately vote Democratic.

Experts in election law say the lawsuit faces significant hurdles, mainly because courts have given political parties wide leeway to set rules for primaries. In landmark cases in Wisconsin in 1981 and Illinois in 1975, the US Supreme Court effectively said that party rules trump state law in the selection of nominees.

Florida lawsuit claims

Still, precedent is relatively scarce. And some experts say a few of the Florida suit's claims – particularly those alleging racial bias under the Voting Rights Act – may be novel enough to draw a judge's eye. The suit also takes an unusual tack in naming as defendants not just the national party but state government, which courts would be likely to hold to a higher standard than a party alone, experts say.

The lawsuit says the Republican-led legislature and GOP Gov. Charlie Crist moved the primary from its traditional March date to January after the DNC had announced the penalties for setting primaries before Feb. 5, a window reserved under Democratic rules for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

"A suit against the state is on stronger ground than a suit against the party," says Guy-Uriel Charles, an election law specialist and co-dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. "Because one might say that the state moved the primary up specifically to deprive these voters of their rights."

That is a claim Florida officials flatly deny. The legislature, with the governor's support, did vote this spring to move the primaries – Democratic and Republican – to Jan. 29. But after Democratic amendments to set a Feb. 5 primary failed, nearly every Democratic lawmaker joined the Republican majority in favor of the Jan. 29 date.

Several Democrats invoked the same reason as Republicans: to give the nation's fourth most populous state a bigger role in the nominating process.

"Moving the primary up earlier puts Florida center stage," Anthony DeLuise, a spokesman for the governor, said in a phone interview. He said that Governor Crist has declared his support for the lawsuit, which was filed by Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings, Democrats of Florida, in their capacity as delegates to the convention, and by Janet Taylor, an African-American county commissioner and possible delegate.

"It's the national Democratic Party" – not Florida – "that is unfairly punishing Democratic voters," Mr. DeLuise said.

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