Worries About a Florida Primary Do-Over Through Vote By Mail

The worst-case scenario for a Florida do-over is that the race is exceedingly close, and credible questions are raised about the fairness of the voting process.
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There are strong reasons, both equitable and political, to do something about the current standoff over whether Florida's delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention should be seated. But the idea currently floated by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) of conducting a "do-over" via an all vote-by-mail primary makes me very concerned about the security and accuracy of such a vote. A far better option would be to award delegates 50-50 to Sens. Clinton and Obama.

Politically knowledgeable people know the relevant background. As I recently explained at Slate, "Florida and Michigan famously held their primaries too early this year, violating the scheduling rules set by the Democratic National Committee. None of the Democratic candidates campaigned in those states, and Obama's name did not even appear on the Michigan ballot. ("Uncommitted" got 40 percent of the votes, compared with Clinton's 55 percent.) Clinton won both of these contests, and she has taken the position that the Florida and Michigan delegates should be seated, a position rejected by the DNC chair, Howard Dean."

Certainly seating Florida and Michigan delegates elected from these early states a very bad precedent for the Democratic Party. It would only encourage states in future elections to buck party rules and increase the race to the front of the line in an already front-loaded primary system. But Michigan and Florida voters didn't make this choice of when to vote; politicians made if for them, and it seems unfair to punish these voters by not allowing their votes to count or their delegates to be seated. And in any case, these states are too important to the Democrats in the November general election to risk angering them now.

One possibility some have suggested is simply seating Florida and Michigan delegations with an even split between Clinton and Obama delegates. That's not what the Florida and Michigan voters chose, but that seems fairer than approving the results of a contest run under unfair rules and conditions.

A fairer option -- if it is feasible -- is a "do-over." Michigan, which already has great experience running caucuses, is rumored to be planning a late spring caucus.

Florida presents a much more difficult problem. It has no experience with caucuses, and it is in the process of transitioning, yet again, between voting technologies. (Florida was one of the first states to phase out those inaccurate punch card voting machines, but they were replaced by electronic voting machines. The state has now decided to scrap the electronic machines, given public distrust over their use, and is replacing them with other technology such as optical scan equipment.)

Sen. Nelson's call for voting by mail has some surface appeal. The election is simple -- a single question with a small number of choices. Poll workers would not be required, nor the rolling out of election machinery. It will be cheaper, which is especially important because there is a large argument over who should pay for a do-over primary.

But an all vote by mail primary makes me very nervous. Putting aside the fact that such a vote is not allowed under current Florida law and would need approval of the Florida legislature, vote by mail simply is not as secure as polling place voting. Vote by mail is essentially a mandatory absentee ballot election. Absentee balloting raises the specter of voter fraud and coercion, for the simple reason that polling officials are absent when voting choices are made. In the absence of a secret ballot, it becomes much easier to enter into an illegal vote buying contract, because the buyer can verify how the seller has voted. In addition, because voting takes place out of the public eye, the possibility of coercion or intimidation about how to vote becomes possible. Even if a Florida do-over would not produce a clear delegate winner between Clinton and Obama, it would have great political importance and could well influence the votes of the superdelegates, who will hold the balance of power if this issue goes to the convention.

It might be that my concerns over the security of vote-by-mail in Florida are overstated. After all, Oregon's vote by mail system has been touted as an excellent and fair system. Perhaps so for Oregon. But what is true for Oregon is not so true for Florida. One need only think back to the massive absentee ballot fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral race that led a court to order a new election. And there's something especially worrisome about rolling out a new system for counting votes for the first time in a presidential contest. It is like debuting your new play straight on Broadway.

The worst-case scenario for a Florida do-over is that the race is exceedingly close, and credible questions are raised about the fairness of the voting process. That won't help anyone -- especially Democrats -- when Florida voters return to the polls in November.

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