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The Primary Shuffle: It Won’t Help the States, or the Voters

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Florida Democratic officials have decided to hold their presidential primary on Jan. 29, 2008, in violation of the Democratic National Committee’s rules. Their blatant contempt for rules they once supported is not only a sign of arrogance, but worse, it’s a sign of desperation from a state party that felt powerless in confronting its Republican-controlled Legislature. [IMGCAP(1)]

One thing is for certain: This is not the end of the 2008 primary shuffle. Let us all hope — especially those presidential candidates who desire to one day lead the most powerful nation on the planet — that this need for states to “go first” will help us reform the current system for 2012 and beyond.

Once the Florida Democratic Party officially submits its plan later this week to the DNC, the sanctions imposed by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee — the loss by the Florida state party of all its delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver — will take effect immediately. For now the state will be ignored by the major Democratic candidates who have signed letters stating they will only campaign in the four states allowed by the DNC rules to hold early contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Despite all the angry comments from Florida officials and the accusations of disenfranchising its citizens, Florida leaders are openly defying the rules not out of some great moral or democratic principle, but out of fear that their state will be treated as less important than some other state. The bigger issue, though, is not which state gets the most attention but how this system can be reformed to best serve our democracy and involve and empower the most voters.

Later this week, the Center for the Study of the American Electorate is holding a timely discussion on “citizen disengagement” from politics. Sponsored by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum and held here in Washington, D.C., this session will feature several prominent leaders from both political parties, including former Sen. William Brock (R-Tenn.), Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), GOP strategist Ed Rollins and civil rights leader Roger Wilkins. They will look at new approaches to campaign finance and campaign conduct, with specific reference to television advertising and the nominating process.

As conference coordinator Curtis Gans stated, “With relevant leaders from both major political parties, we’ll explore ways to find common ground to a sound and durable presidential nominating system which emphasizes a long track, individual primaries and retail politics.” Hopefully, this gathering will help shape the contours of the debate to reform the entire electoral system for the future.

During the CSAE session, I plan to float a proposal that will reward states based on the civic participation of its citizens — from voter registration to election reform and voter turnout. Perhaps it’s time to reward states that not only educate their citizens on the importance of voting and participation in the electoral process but also take affirmative steps to eradicate barriers to participation —like allowing ex-felons who have served their time to regain their voting rights; ensuring that all communities have access to adequate voting equipment and personnel; eliminating unfair voter identification requirements; and converting to voting systems that produce a paper ballot or receipt.

There’s no question the current presidential nominating system is dysfunctional and chaotic and is too often being used by states as an economic development scheme to fill hotel rooms and the coffers of local businesses. The truth is that states that move up their primaries will not get any significant economic benefit because they’ll all be a part of a gigantic media campaign. The only groups that will profit are the broadcasters, and while large states will carry more weight, it all will be a blur.

We have dual problems — a nominating schedule with a dangerous rush to judgment, favoring the famous, the rich and the connected, and a campaign finance system that denies people the risk capital to get in the game.

Clearly, this is not a Democratic Party problem alone. The Republican National Committee also has threatened to enforce its rules and strip the Florida Republicans of half of their delegates.

The rules were never intended for presidential candidates to call in personal chits for states to move forward to help them secure delegates. The rules were not intended so our Congressional representatives could manipulate the process if it didn’t fit their agenda. What we’re now witnessing in Florida, Michigan and Wyoming on the Republican side and elsewhere is nothing more than electoral blackmail, demands that candidates campaign in their states — or else.

Our nation deserves better. Our citizens want to know if the process that produces our candidates is fair and will help us pick the best candidate to lead our party and our country. At the very least, all of these issues will be on the table for discussion this week. It’s about time.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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