A plan to create a panel that would decide the states primary date -- potentially defusing a showdown between state Republicans and the national party -- and the wide-ranging bill it was attached to, is headed for the House floor after a party-line committee vote Thursday.
The primary measure was attached to a bill (HB 1355) making a slate of changes to the states election law, from restricting when some registered voters can change their address to cutting in half the lifetime of signatures on citizen-initiative petitions to imposing new regulations on third-party organizations that register voters.
Republicans presented the plan for a primary commission as a way to increase the states ability to make sure that it plays a major role in the process of selecting the next president. Currently, the Legislature chooses the date.
That doesnt provide the state, in my opinion, the 21st century flexibility that it needs in order to react to the political climate, said State Affairs Committee Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
The 2012 presidential primary is set for Jan. 31, a date that could lead the Republican National Committee to slice the number of delegates from Florida in half because it breaks the partys calendar for primaries and caucuses. The new commission -- which would include the secretary of state as a nonvoting member and three appointments each by the House speaker, Senate president and governor -- could set that date anywhere between the first Tuesday in January and the first Tuesday in March.
The speaker, president and governor could each appoint no more than two members from the same party. Some Democrats floated the idea, rejected by McKeel, that the panel should be expanded to have four members selected by each of the three officials while keeping the limit on appointments from the same party.
This is an issue that impacts both major parties, potentially, and it could be negatively, depending on which date was chosen, said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.
New Hampshire Democrats also chimed in on the proposal, with the chairman of that states Democratic Party saying the measure falls short of what is needed to protect that states traditional place in the pecking order.
Simply hoping that Florida's move 'won't come to pass' isn't enough, and presidential hopefuls campaigning here this week need to stand in defense of the New Hampshire primary to ensure our 'first in the nation' status is protected, Chairman Ray Buckley said.
The primary amendment passed the State Affairs Committee on a voice vote.
The underlying measure, which passed 12-6, is controversial in its own right, with voting-rights and other advocacy groups decrying it as a measure that would suppress votes and force thousands of Florida residents to cast provisional ballots that might not count.
Stop with this fundamental assault on our most basic rights as Floridians and Americans, said Rich Templin with the Florida AFL-CIO.
Republicans argued that measures dealing with voter registration were intended to cut back on the opportunities for fraud at the polls.
Dont we care about the credibility of that vote? asked Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and the bills sponsor. Dont we care about the integrity of the vote? Or do we just want people to vote?
But Templin said many of the horror stories were overblown, and that cases of registration fraud were largely already caught.
Mickey Mouse has never voted in the state of Florida, Templin said. Donald Duck has never voted in the state of Florida. Our system works very, very well.
Opponents also said the measures changes to the petition process, which would make signatures valid for just two years instead of four, would make it harder for Floridians to access their own Constitution.
It just makes the process more difficult for true grass-roots efforts, said Brad Ashwell of Florida PIRG, and puts the process in the hands of special interests.