Florida Democrats file suit against Dean, DNC for cutting delegates

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) rarely put down his pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution Thursday morning as he lambasted the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and its chairman, Howard Dean, for stripping Florida of its delegates in next year’s presidential election.

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“We believe the right to vote, and to have that vote count, is — in fact — the cornerstone of our democracy,” Nelson told reporters. “Without it, nothing else will work.”

Nelson, with Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), made it official Thursday they are suing Dean and the DNC for a declaratory relief injunction to prevent the party from going through with harsh penalties against the state that went into effect automatically Sept. 29. The lawmakers said those penalties effectively will negate the votes of almost 4.5 million voters.

After the GOP-controlled Florida legislature and Republican governor enacted a law earlier this year moving the Sunshine State’s primary to Jan. 29, in violation of the DNC’s rules, the party’s rules committee voted to punish the state with its harshest penalties available, stripping the state of all its delegates and barring presidential candidates from campaigning there.

The state party was given 30 days to come up with an alternative, but the state and national parties squared off to the point of impasse, and the penalties took effect without fanfare.

Nelson, Hastings and other Florida Democrats are furious, claiming in press accounts and their lawsuit, which was filed in a federal district court in Tallahassee on Thursday, that by stripping the states delegates, the DNC is disenfranchising voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

They also charge that by allowing the candidates to raise money in Florida, but not campaign, the national committee has instituted a de facto poll tax. At the heart of both challenges are allegations that the DNC, through its actions, is infringing on the voting rights of minorities.

“Paying for political participation is unacceptable, just as a poll tax was unacceptable,” Nelson said.

The DNC passed the rules during its summer convention in 2006. The rules committee met this summer to vote on the harsher penalties now in effect.

The committee maintains that Supreme Court precedent falls in its favor, pointing to “a constitutionally protected right to determine the method of selection of delegates to [its] national nominating conventions” in citing the case of Cousins v. Wigoda.

They are also citing the case of the Democratic Party of the United States v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette, which holds that national parties do not need to recognize the results of a primary in allocating delegates, and that a state can refuse to seat delegates from a primary that violates its rules.

A DNC official said the committee doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but the official did reassert that the committee is well within its rights to institute penalties on the state.

“The state of Florida moved the date of their primary knowing full well what the consequences from the national parties would be,” the official said.

What’s more, the official said, “there is no legal basis for challenging the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee actions under the Voting Rights Act. In fact, it is the State of Florida, not the party, who may have violated the VRA by failing to get a pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice prior to moving the date of their primary.”

Nelson and Hastings took exception to the precedents Thursday, saying they contained “a whole different set of facts.”
“We’ll win the lawsuit because it’s the right thing,” Hastings said.

Both lawmakers, when asked, insisted they are not hurting the party or its chances for victory in the 2008 presidential election by engaging in an intra-party spat.

“We’re not trying to hurt the Democratic Party; we’re trying to help the Democratic Party,” Hastings said.

Nelson added: “The worst thing we could do to hurt our party would be to be silent and not stand up for our citizens’ right to vote.”

All of the major Democratic candidates signed a pledge last month not to campaign in any states that infringe upon the pre-Feb. 5 window as set by the DNC. That list also includes Michigan, which moved its primary to Jan. 15.

Nelson said he has talked to several candidates who are “quite chagrined” that they cannot campaign in Florida, but he declined to name specific candidates.

The senator added that his wife has invited the candidates’ spouses to attend the state Democratic Party convention later this month in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

“They are all reluctant to attend,” Nelson said.

Both lawmakers said winning their lawsuit is the first part of much-needed reform. Both Nelson and Hastings are co-sponsoring legislation in their respective bodies that would revamp the way primaries are conducted.

“The bigger picture is to straighten out this mess,” Nelson said.

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