Salena Zito

It's one more quirk in a presidential election year that has begun with many of them: Votes cast for Democratic candidates in Michigan -- and in Florida's upcoming primary -- will not count.

And that's causing bitterness and blame, say political analysts and party faithful.

"The seeds of a massive fight have been planted," said Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia, who thinks, in the end, two large swing states won't be underrepresented at the Aug. 25-28 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

"One way or the other, delegates will be seated," he said in an interview this week. Nevertheless, "this could cause great controversy if the Clinton-Obama race is still close."

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the Nevada caucus, but Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the national convention delegate count, 13-12. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina finished a distant third.

The Democratic National Committee sanctioned Michigan and Florida by stripping them of their delegates when the states ignored committee rules and moved their primaries ahead of the committee-approved Feb. 5 "Super-Duper Tuesday." Twenty-four states will hold primaries and caucuses on that date.

The Republican National Committee has been less aggressive about punishing states that are holding contests outside the window. The RNC executive committee voted in the fall to withhold half the delegates for those states that went before Feb. 5, including New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming.

Michigan, which held its primary Jan. 15, would have sent 174 delegates to the convention. Florida, whose voters go to the polls Jan. 29, would have sent 210.

"We thought it was important to take a stand," said Mark Brewer, Michigan State Democratic Party chairman. "We did this on principle, and the principle is that it is unfair that small, unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire always get to go first. That is why we moved up."

But, he acknowledged, "Plenty of people complained to me that they felt disenfranchised."

Sabato concedes the two states' Democratic voters are disenfranchised, "but only temporarily -- and for a good cause."

Officials in those states indeed stood up "for the rights of larger states to have proportionate influence in the selection of presidential nominees," he said.

Yet, he understands the Democratic National Committee's position. "Why bother to have rules if you don't enforce them?"

In Florida's Alachua County, people aren't as forgiving about the stripped votes, said county Democratic Party Chairman Jon Reiskind. Where they place blame might surprise some.

"A lot of people are mad at the DNC, but most people blame the Republicans for the mess we are in," Reiskind said.

He argues that Republicans were up to some "suspicious activities" when Florida's Republican-dominated legislature voted to move up the primary and GOP Gov. Charlie Crist signed off on it.

"We are very angry at the Republican legislature. Who pays the price for our vote not counting? Not the Republicans," Reiskind said.

Reiskind describes Alachua County as "a blue county in a sea of red." Alachua's Democrats out-register Republicans by nearly 30,000 voters, according to the county's supervisor of elections. The county -- which has 128,687 registered voters, 66,193 of them Democrats and 36,950, Republicans -- went Democrat for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

Another reason for the anger: Florida's ballot on Jan. 29 includes a decision on property taxes, Reiskind said. The constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 1, offers property tax relief through state-mandated cuts by local governments. It is generally favored by Republicans, officials with both parties said.

With fewer Democrats voting, the property tax amendment could have a better chance of passing -- "an amendment that most Democrats are opposed to," Reiskind said.

Leonard Joseph, executive director of the Florida State Democratic Party, said party officials had no choice but to go along with the earlier date. Florida held its 2004 primary March 9.

"We could have done a caucus," he said, "but given the sheer size of our state, that would not have been a practical alternative."

Joseph said voters, reporters and candidates have flooded his office with calls.

"We are in a very tricky position," he said. "There is a lot of resentment from voters here directed at the candidates. They are very hurt by the fact that all of the candidates signed a pledge to not campaign here."

Michigan's situation wasn't much different, officials said. Although a Democrat-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm agreed to the early voting date, the outcome was the same -- stripped delegates. Michigan held its 2004 presidential primary Feb. 7.

The Michigan State Democratic Party urged people to vote anyway, and because Clinton was the only leading Democrat on the ballot, she won 55 percent of the vote. The other Democrat on the ballot, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, won 3.7 percent.

But 40 percent of Democrats there voted "uncommitted," an apparent nod of support for Obama or Edwards, who took their names off Michigan's ballot to comply with the official schedule.

All of this, said political analyst Sabato, might not matter by the August convention, if a clear leader has emerged for the Democratic nomination.

"Then, this controversy will fade to nothingness," he said.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.