Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in February 2015 – however coming off another electoral defeat where Tier 2 counties were an even bigger bloodbath for Democratic candidates and all the controversy over qualifying processes for the FDP Chair’s race the time is right to rerun the piece. However perspectives have changed since this discussion over rules reform thanks to an intervening electoral failure. We’ll have more thoughts on this in the coming days.
One of the major topics of discussion coming off an electoral defeat for the Florida Democratic Party has been reforming the rules that govern the party and how chairs of the state party are selected. A feeling has begun permeate the ranks of the state party that so few stakeholders exist to really make the FDP work, because the majority of members of the State Committee have little say in how things work due to the weighted vote which favors large urban counties.
The weighted vote works based on the Democratic performance in Presidential elections. So for example, the State Committee people from Miami-Dade and Broward County alone account for 1/3 of the votes needed to be elected chair of the FDP. Yet Miami-Dade and Broward County represent only 2 of 67 counties in the state of Florida.
Here are some numbers related to the weighted vote:
– The 5 largest counties (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Orange) control 48% of the votes. This represents 7% of total counties controlling almost half the vote. This consolidates power in the hands of not only a few urban areas but with 10 state committee people.
– The bottom 50% of counties represent just 8% of the votes.
– All the counties except the top 10 — the bottom 84% of counties, 57 counties in all — represent just 32% of the votes.
Some have argued the time to move to a one county – one vote model like the RPOF has come for Florida’s Democrats. However, it is fair to say that the weighted vote falls much closer to the actual structure of Florida’s electorate than a one county – one vote system would. Florida doesn’t have a county unit vote system to select statewide officials (Georgia did for years specifically to dilute the influence of Atlanta as a voting center but the courts eventually required the state to go to a one person – one vote system) or use the electoral college.
Weighted votes are favored by those who power is consolidated in – say you are on the State Committee from Broward County. You can argue, perhaps rightly that without your county and active participation of your DEC in statewide matters, Democrats have no chance of electoral success. Can a similar official from Franklin or DeSoto counties make that claim?
But the flip side of this is that can be easily argued that those on the State Committee from smaller counties aren’t viable stakeholders in the party as a whole because they have so little influence or pull in FDP matters. A fear has spread among some that this impacts electoral performance and motivation for those in small county DECs come election time. Whether this is actually a valid concern is up for debate.
Party elders continue to talk about North Florida as if it were some sort of panacea for the Democrats problems. This discussion has been going on since the early 2000’s when party staff talked openly about the need to compete between the Apalachicola and Suwanee Rivers in 2002. What resulted in that election was decent Democratic electoral performance in the second congressional district but a wipe-out up and down I-4. In 2006, similar arguments were made by party consultants and reinforced after electoral defeat for Jim Davis but victory for Alex Sink in the CFO race. By 2010, Alex Sink was employing this logic and losing statewide by leaving tens of thousands of votes on the table in central and south Florida. After Charlie Crist’s 2014 election defeat where he focused on urban counties with populist messaging, the party elders emboldened by Gwen Graham’s victory began once again claiming winning North Florida was the key to electoral success statewide.
This is a common comfort zone for Tallahassee-based Democrats be they party staff, party consultants or outside consultants. While some Tallahassee-oriented operatives like Steve Schale take a broader and more logical view of things across the state, others simply clam up into a comfort zone based around rural North Florida counties. It is important to note that if you take liberal Leon County out of the equation, the rest of CD-2 represents less than 2.5% of the electorate in the state. At the same time the Democrats have largely ignored medium sized counties such as Marion, Pasco, Manatee, Lee, Polk, Brevard and others where Obama drove up turnout in 2008 and 2012. Brevard, Pasco and Polk counties for instance individually represent a larger share of the electorate than what is left of CD-2 after Leon County is taken out of the equation. This reality reinforces the need for Democrats to refocus on second-tier counties OUTSIDE BOTH NORTH AND SOUTH FLORIDA, while keeping some sort of vote weight in place for party elections.
However, it is difficult to justify the amount of potential power that is consolidated in small number of hands under the current system. That is why it is probably the happy medium to keep the vote weights in place but to force large counties to elect as many as ten committeemen and women to diffuse the consolidation of power.
This can be achieved in many ways – I have never understood why most county party chairs do not have a seat on the State Committee. The same can be said for vice chairs. The people who actually make the most critical decisions and do most of the work on the local level are shut out from state decisions. The Chairwoman of the party, currently Allison Tant also has less flexibility to reward those county chairs that do the best job possible thanks to the limits on State Committee members are the arcane rules. For a chair to influence the State Committee they have to find another route into the decision making realm. In many cases the opportunity for the state chair to bring the right people into a position of responsibility or to reward those who work hard is severely limited.
It makes zero sense in my mind for the State Committee to not include the chairs and vice-chairs from every DEC in the state. The positions of State Committeeman and State Committeewoman which have become personal power bases or fiefdoms of influence should be reformed or perhaps even abolished. Restructuring county DEC’s will help to reshape the state party and make it more effective. Perhaps also large DEC’s can elect multiple State Committee people and do it by region within the county.
It is worth noting that Central Florida as a broad region (not the thinly defined region based around Orlando, but including the Tampa Bay Area and counties northward along I-75 until Marion) represents a little over 40% of Florida’s electorate. Yet many in the party tend to ignore these counties outside the three large urban ones (Hillsborough, Pinellas and Orange). Any type of rules reform should consider the importance of these counties if the Democrats are ever to reverse a tide which has seen the party lose 19 of the last 20 statewide elections where Bill Nelson hasn’t been the Democratic nominee.