Late last year, the Democratic National Committee promulgated a rule to the state parties, forbidding them to schedule any primary on or before the date when Iowa and New Hampshire held theirs (January 3rd and 20th, respectively.) The penalty for violation was that the delegates from the wrongdoing state would not be seated at the convention, and their votes would not be counted.
States have been getting increasingly indignant about the primary process as the final results have happened earlier and earlier, well before many of the most populous states voted. Many of them have moved up their primaries in response. In response to this trend, the party wanted to put some sort of limit on early primaries. Was January 20 the best choice of a limit? Who knows? Anyway, Michigan and Florida held theirs on January 15.
Obama chose not to run or campaign in either state. Clinton ran in both, and did some campaigning.
The DNC responded by refusing to count the delegates elected in the Michigan and Florida elections, though they are now at least allowing them to attend the convention, wear funny hats, carry signs, and in general whoop it up.
If one of the candidates had already pulled well ahead of the other, we would probably never hear another word about Michigan and Florida, since their delegates not only wouldn’t count, they wouldn’t matter. But Obama and Clinton are almost dead even, and likely to stay that way through the rest of the primaries. Both of them need those delegates.
Obama says a rule is a rule and a penalty is a penalty. Clinton says “let the people decide.” She insists that the voters of Michigan and Florida have a right to have their votes counted somehow or other. Is this purely a matter of self-interest, given that she won all the delegates in both states? Not necessarily, because at the outset of the primary season, she urged Obama to campaign and run in those states too.
Aside from which, what most people who want to repair this mess are talking about, is allowing both states to do the primary over, presumably with both candidates on the ballot this time. Of course, the major problem is money–a regular ballot-box election in both states would cost roughly $40 million or so. Neither state government is offering to supply that money. It has been pointed out that “soft [ie unrestricted] money” can be raised for the party organizations to cover those costs, and apparently that is being seriously considered in some quarters. There have also been proposals for elections by mail, which would be cheaper by some unspecified amount.
The how-to problem will probably get resolved by some miraculous infusion of real or virtual money within the next few weeks. But the issues of political morality are more complicated. The courts, in previous decisions having to do with primary elections, have said both that a political party is a private organization with the right to make and enforce its own rules, and that sometimes it isn’t, ie when its rules infringe on the right of the voter (the most important cases on that subject were those involving the infamous “white primaries” of the Southern Democratic parties before the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in 1944.) Obama appears to share the former position. Clinton, although she hasn’t actually said so in any detail, seems to think that any party rule which denies the voters the right to have their votes counted is unconstitutional, no different from a whites-only primary.
The closest the Supreme Court has come to enunciating the respective rights of state party organizations and state governmental electoral authorities was in the infamous Bush v. Gore decision, which started out with the explicit statement that it was not to be used as precedent for any later decision. So for all practical purposes the question is still open.
I desperately hope the Supremes never get a shot at it, given the mess they made of Bush v. Gore. And I’m actually more interested in the ethical merits of the case. Who’s the bad guy here? Is there a good guy? Let’s look at all the players: the states, the DNC, Obama, and Clinton.
The states chose to move their primaries up so as to have some real influence on the outcome, surely a legitimate end. But one of its major effects, as we are all well aware by now, is to stretch out the campaign season to an almost unendurable length. And the spectacle of the states madly jostling to be first out of the gate is, at best, unedifying, and at worst, obnoxious.
The DNC, in an effort to keep the primaries from oozing into the year before the general election (or why not the year before that?) drew the line. They drew it so as to preserve the traditional First State status of New Hampshire and Iowa. Why? Who knows? Love of tradition? (Conservative Founder Edmund Burke says, “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”) Some effective lobbying from New Hampshire and Iowa? Money under the table? (That seems unlikely, but cannot be completely written off.) The results of a hot game of draw poker?
The DNC made the rule, and made utterly clear the penalties for violating it. Michigan and Florida violated it. Now, says the DNC, they must pay the price. Unfortunately, the price is actually being paid by the voters of those states. “That’s representative democracy,” the party tells them. “Like when the legislature passes a tax–even the citizens who opposed it are required to pay it. Your legislature moved up the primary in violation of party rules. They were the ones who chose to disenfranchise you, not the DNC. Don’t blame us, we’re just following our own rules.” The DNC might also be justified in pointing out that the decision to move up the primaries was a popular one, among voters who were tired of getting to the party after all the food was gone and the band was shutting down, so to speak. This was not a decision snuck in behind closed doors at 2 AM in blatant opposition to the will of the people. So let those people pay for the decision, why not?
Mr. Wired, with whom we have had passionate arguments on this subject, says Obama’s acquiescence to the disenfranchisement of the voters of Florida and Michigan brands him as a party hack, willing to go along with whatever the bosses decide in their smoke-filled rooms. Clinton’s “let the people decide” makes her the true populist, the independent thinker, the person who has taken a principled stand in favor of democratic (with a small d) process.
Others (I’m not sure where I stand on this right now) would say that Obama is a team player, and Clinton is willing to countenance breaking the rules if it gets her delegates. (Which, of course, in a do-over election, it might not. So much for that argument.)
Do we want to strengthen individual voters and candidates, as against party organization? Does it matter that this time, the party in question is the Democrats? Maybe it does. Which may sound strange coming from someone who, back in 1968 (see previous posting) actually tried to burn her voter registration card (which identified her as a Democrat) when the convention voted down a peace platform. (BTW, the darn thing wouldn’t light.) That convention was the last and biggest blast of the old-style party politics. It selected a candidate who had not even run in any of the primaries, much less won. Compared to that, what may or may not ultimately happen to the voters of Michigan and Florida is small potatoes.
I’m skittish now about anything that weakens the role of the parties, especially the Democratic party, and turns the electoral process into more of a popularity contest than it already is. It’s bad enough being restricted to our current one-and-a-half party system (why is it that a society that can give us 150 kinds of toothpaste and 60 flavors of ice cream can only produce two more or less different political parties?)–why make it any worse?
Mr. Wired advocates a one-day nationwide primary sometime around April (for considerations of weather), with a runoff if necessary within one or two weeks afterward. He points out, reasonably enough, that in the national general election, we frown on publishing East Coast state results even hours or minutes before the West Coast and Hawaii polls are shut down. Why should primaries be different, with weeks and months between the various states?
One of the reasons most often given is that we want the primaries to be a process, in which the voters in the later primaries are affected by what has happened previously. It’s the difference between the baseball playoffs and a round robin tournament, I guess (though I’m weak on sports metaphors, and may be totally wrong about this one.) But maybe, given where we are now, that’s not such a good idea anyway. We already spend too much of our electoral decision time looking over our shoulder to see what everybody else is doing or has done or might do. Why can’t we bring back the secret ballot, for real, with everybody deciding simultaneously, in isolation? At least try it for a couple of cycles, just to see how it works out.
All of our tinkering with party rules should be tentative anyway, and we shouldn’t be bashful about backtracking on any of it. Were the 1972 changes such a great idea? Do we maybe want the smoke-filled rooms back (but without the smoke, obviously)?
So anyway, reasonable people can differ on whether Obama is a team player or a party hack, and whether Clinton is an independent thinker or a hot-dogger. And with any luck, the DNC will work out some sort of compromise, preferably on other people’s money, that expresses the will of the voters in Michigan and Florida, preferably as of now rather than back in January.