TALLAHASSEE -- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio persuaded state lawmakers Friday to make a last-minute change eliminating Florida’s early presidential primary — in which the Republican could be on the ballot.
Rubio’s main concern was shared by lawmakers and operatives from both parties: ensuring that Florida’s 2016 primary vote counts.
The measure, barely discussed, was tucked into an election-reform bill that passed the Legislature by wide margins Friday.
The bill, which Gov. Rick Scott will likely sign, expands early-voting hours and sites in order to alleviate long lines at the polls.
The early-primary rule change was almost an afterthought.
Right now, the Sunshine State’s early primary violates Democratic and Republican national party rules, which penalize the state by severely devaluing the vote of its delegates who nominate each party’s presidential candidate.
Florida Republicans, for instance, would only have 12 delegates instead of 99 if the state kept its early primary in January or early February.
“We would go from being the third-largest delegation to being the smallest,” said Todd Reid, state director for Rubio.
Asked about Rubio’s potential bid for president in 2016, Reid said the changes had nothing to do with the senator’s political future and noted that Democrats support the changes as much, if not more, than Republicans.
The Democratic penalties are even worse than the GOP’s. If the state has an early primary, none of the Democrats’ delegates would count in 2016, nor did they in 2008.
That was the first year the early primary was held, in late January, and it was done at the urging of Rubio, who was House speaker at the time.
Under Republican rules, the state was only penalized half of its delegation then and in 2012, so it made the early race worth it to give Florida more national exposure.
But the new penalties by the Republican National Committee made the early primary too prohibitive for Republicans, who control the Legislature.
On Friday afternoon, Reid suggested changing the election law to ensure the primary vote follow party rules, effectively setting the date in early March of 2016.
OK’D BY HIGHER-UPS
Reid reached out to Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic consultant and advisor to President Barack Obama’s campaign. Schale checked with the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, where higher-ups quickly signed off on the plan.
“It sounds like a great idea,” Schale said he told Reid. “I’m tired of my party being unable to count our delegates. … I’m worn out with being penalized by the DNC for having an early primary even though my party in Florida had nothing to with setting the early primary date.”
Initially, lawmakers had no plans to fix the early-primary issue out of concern that it would weigh the bill down.
The overall legislation was written in response to the botched 2012 election, in which people waited for hours to cast ballots during early voting and on Election Day.
Contributing to the mess: the Legislature, in 2011, cut back early-voting days and put lengthy constitutional amendments on the ballot. Also, some election supervisors were ill equipped or ill prepared.
The Senate wanted language that would punish some county election supervisors deemed “noncompliant” or ineffective. Lawmakers said most of the election problems happened in five counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Lee.