WASHINGTON – Democrats decided Saturday to strip Florida of all its presidential convention delegates unless the state holds its primary later in the 2008 election calendar. The punishment would leave the fourth largest state without a vote for the nominee.
The state party has 30 days to comply by moving its contest back at least seven days from the current Jan. 29 plan or lose its 210 delegates to the nominating convention in Denver next summer.
The state party chairwoman, Karen Thurman, said she would confer with officials about the ultimatum. Elected officials in Florida have said they would consider legal action and a protest at the convention if the national party barred the state's delegates.
Florida party officials said they originally opposed the early primary date, which covers both the Democratic and Republican primaries. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the change and the GOP governor signed it into law in an effort to give the state a more prominent voice in national politics.
But Florida Democratic leaders now are committed to the state-run election because voter participation would drop drastically if Democrats held an alternative contest after Jan. 29.
Members of the Democratic National Committee's rules panel expressed skepticism that Florida Democrats did enough to stop the change and they approved the harshest penalty. Every member voted against Florida except for the state's representative on the panel, Allan Katz.
Refusing to seat the delegates would set a "terrible situation for Florida and a very bad situation for the Democratic Party," Katz said.
Party rules say states cannot hold their 2008 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.
The calendar was designed to preserve the traditional role that Iowa and New Hampshire have played in selecting the nominee, while adding two states with more racial and geographic diversity to influential early slots.
Several DNC officials said before the vote that they wanted to take the strong action against Florida to discourage Michigan, New Hampshire and other states that were considering advancing their contests in violation of party rules.
Garry Shay, a rules committee member from California, said allowing Florida to move forward "would open the door to chaos."
DNC committee member Donna Brazile also argued for a strong penalty, saying, "I hesitate to see what happens if we show somehow some wiggle room in our process."
The shifting dates have added uncertainty to the presidential candidates' campaign plans with the first votes to be cast in less than five months.
Advisers to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has a wide lead in Florida polls, said she will go wherever elections are held. Other candidates are waiting to see how the dispute shakes out.
Sen. Barack Obama's schedule had him raising money in Florida on Saturday and returning at month's end. But his campaign said the Illinois senator might not come back often during the primary season.
Florida's congressional delegation has raised the possibility of a voting rights investigation in response to the punishment.
National Democratic officials insist there is no legal basis to force the party to seat delegates in violation of its rules. Florida officials could not say what law the DNC would have violated or where the case could be pursued.
Jon Ausman, a DNC member from Florida, pleaded for a role in what could turn out to be a historic election, with the potential of the first woman, black or Hispanic nominee, even if the state were the "black sheep" of the primary season.
"We're asking you for mercy, not judgment," he told the rules committee meeting in a hotel conference room.
The party's action comes seven years after Florida was at the center of an unprecedented dispute over presidential vote counting. 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.
Terrie Brady, a DNC member who helped present Florida's case, said the party's denial of delegates disenfranchises Florida voters. Rules committee members objected to the term, saying Florida's votes would be counted if they followed the rules.
"I find your use of the word disenfranchisement to be an overstatement," said committee member David McDonald, who is from Washington state.
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.