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 A-- 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.
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
"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.
A DNC spokeswoman, Karen Finney, said the Democratic Party was on
firm ground to disregard contests that run afoul of party rules. …