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 have only 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 follows party rules, effectively setting the date in early March 2016.
Reid reached out to Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic consultant and adviser 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.
"We all took a lot of flak all over the nation for some of the problems we had over the election last year. We were the butt of jokes on late-night TV," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the Senate reform. "There was enough blame to go around. And there were supervisors who were not adequately prepared for the election."
At the House's insistence, the Senate backed away from the language punishing noncompliant supervisors. The Senate then passed the bill 27-13, with Democrats calling for even more early voting hours. The House passed the bill 115-1.
The House also added the language eliminating the early primary as well as the existence of a special committee that was established to set the vote date.
Republican lawmakers say the committee isn't needed. And they want to eliminate it on the off chance that former Gov. Charlie Crist beats Gov. Rick Scott and stocks the committee with Republicans friendly to Crist, who left the GOP before he lost to Rubio in 2010 and has recently become a Democrat.
The new primary date provision, passed as an amendment Friday afternoon, specifically says Florida's primary will be held "on the first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty." That would put Florida in compliance with rules recently passed by the Republican National Committee, which requires states to hold a primary or caucus after the final Tuesday in February.
The RNC made the changes after the past two elections, when it struggled to stop renegade states like Florida and Michigan from moving up their primary dates to get ahead of traditional caucus and primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
When Florida jumped ahead last year, the GOP penalized the state party by allowing only 49 of its 99 delegates.
Also, Florida's Republican delegates were given far-away hotel rooms during the Republican National Convention — even though it was held in their home-state city of Tampa. In some cases, Florida delegates were stuck for hours on a bus as they tried to head to the RNC event.
"This way, no one from Florida should have to wait on a bus for six hours," Reid said.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.