Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

Voting is not party involvement.

We hear a lot of talk these days about “voters” being repressed in their attempt to be involved in the Democratic primary process. There may be something to that, and it might be nice to make it easier for people to wake up on some (usually) Tuesday morning and go and vote in a Democratic or Republican primary or visit a caucus. But there is a difference between a desire for a reform and the meaningful understanding of that reform — why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us — that makes it important to do what we Anthropologists sometimes call “problemetizing the concept.”

We can start with the statement that in the primary system, “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.” That sentence seems reasonable, even important, and is essentially a call for open, instead of closed, primaries, or in some cases, for replacing a caucus with a primary.

The first part of the sentence that is problematic is the word “voters.” Yes, people who vote in a primary are voting, and thus voters, but that is not really what a voter is in our democratic system. A voter is a person who votes in the general election for a constitutional candidate. The constitutional candidates got on the ballot, usually, through our party system in which a formally recognized party puts someone on the ballot by filling out the right paper work and following a bunch of law-based rules and some other rules that the party itself makes up. The person who goes and votes in a primary is doing something subtly but importantly different. They are participating in the party’s process of selecting a candidate. In theory, this could be done with no voting. It could be done by people meeting several times to pick surrogates, who will be delegates to a convention. Even when it seems like one is visiting a polling location and casting a vote for a candidate, that is not really what you are doing. You are actually casting a vote that will be put together with all of the other votes cast in that state for use in a formula that will cause chosen delegates to vote a certain way on the first ballot at a national convention, after which they can do (more or less) what they want.

I’ve seen people use the word “elect” and “election” in reference to what people are doing during the primary process. But we are not doing that. The statement that “Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.” is improperly framed, because what happens in the primary process does not really involve voters, but rather, individuals who are participating in a party’s process in a way that often involves casting a ballot, but really not a ballot for a particular candidate.

Now lets travel down the sentence a bit farther until we get to the phrase “kept from.”

There are a lot of ways to keep someone from casting a ballot or caucusing that are bad and that should be fixed. In Minnesota we cast our presidential preference ballot during a one hour time period at a large building (usually a school) with inadequate parking, often far from where people live, not on a bus route, in the dark (lots of people don’t drive in the dark), under conditions that are dauntingly chaotic. It is assumed, almost certainly correctly, that this causes a lot of people to not even show up. If an insufficient number of polling places is arranged so it takes hours of waiting to pick your candidate, or if you show up and somehow you are not allowed to vote because your name has been incorrectly removed from the registration list, or something along those lines, then you are being kept out. These and similar things are bad and should be fixed.

But a lot of the “kept from” stuff is not about any of that. Rather, it is about the particular rules a party uses (or all the parties in a state, in some cases) that the participant must know about and follow in order to be involved in the process. In New York you have to be registered in a party to vote in that party’s primary. In New Hampshire it, a registered Democrat must vote in the Democratic Primary, a registered Republican can vote in the Republican primary, and a registered Independent can pick at the last second which of those two party’s primary to vote in. I’ll discuss in a moment why these rules a) should be changed and b) shouldn’t be changed. For now, though, we need to recognize that these are not things done to keep one from involvement. They are simply the rules for being involved. Potential party primary participants who are kept out of the process because of these rules are, essentially, repressing themselves (sadly).

Now let’s go even further down the sentence (“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic process.”) and look at the word “involvement.”

I’ve already implied that involvement in the primary or caucus process is not the same thing as voting, even if you think you are voting at the time, because you really aren’t quite voting for a candidate (I quickly add that yes, this is true with the Electoral College as well, but generally we feel that we have an inalienable right to vote in the general election for all sorts of candidates, and only one of those offices is somewhat indirect, and perhaps it shouldn’t be).

Involvement is not casting a ballot in a primary or standing on a table holding up a sign in a caucus one time. Involvement is bigger than that.

Consider Sorkin’s Rule “Decisions are made by those who show up.” That is actually not true. Important decisions about complicated things require multiple conversations, meetings, etc. The actual rule should be “Decisions are made by those who show up. And then show up a few more times.”

I suspect that the majority of people who are pointing at long established party rules and complaining about being kept form involvement really don’t want to be “involved” in the way it takes to really be involved because it takes a fair amount of work. Rather, people seem to want to vote for a candidate and go home, and have that be all there is to it, and have it count. But involvement is actually more complicated than that, and may require more work than that.

For example, consider the recent caucus in Minnesota.

We don’t actually caucus for president here, although it is called that. Rather, we cast a vote (as described above) just like in a primary, but a rather badly done primary. In Minnesota, as well as in other states, that vote ultimately determines only one thing: how will the delegates that the state sends to the national convention vote on the first ballot. If you want a particular candidate to survive an open convention, or if you want your candidate’s party platform planks to be considered, you better send a delegate supporting your candidate to the national convention somehow, and do some other things. To do this, you will have to show up not just once, but a couple or a few times.

In Minnesota, we had that preference ballot, and at the same event (the precinct caucus) people were able to present resolutions, which could ultimately be part of the party platform if approved by enough people. The resolutions that go through this process are the party platform, and the party platform doesn’t come from anywhere else. So resolutions are presented at the precinct caucus, and voted on, and if approved, go on to the next level. Also, at this precinct caucus, delegates are selected to go forward in the process.

A few weeks later, there is a Senate District convention. All the precinct level resolutions are listed on a ballot, and the delegates that moved forward can vote on them. Delegates are welcome to rise in support or opposition of a resolution, and there is discussion among all the delegates of these resolutions. So the voting itself is a democratic process, but that process is enhanced by a conversation at which questions can be raised and answered and issues can be clarified. The resolutions that are passed on will likely become part of the state party’s platform.

A this event, the delegates select among themselves a smaller set of delegates that will go on to the next level (Congressional District or County). Those delegates will form the pool from which the national delegates are ultimately chosen, and they will vote on other party issues at higher levels of the caucus process.

That, folks, is involvement. If you go forward to this level and participate, you have influenced the party platform, and you have influenced which actual people go forward as delegates. Maybe you yourself will even be one of these delegates.

Sticking for a moment with Minnesota, let me tell you what happened at my caucuses, because it is illustrative of a key point I’m trying to make here.

There were about twice as many votes cast in the presidential preference ballot than individuals who stayed in the room to participate. The people in the room were the usual Democrats who show up every two or for years, among whom were several Clinton supporters and several Sanders supporters. I’m pretty sure the two people running the show included one Clinton supporter (my guess) and one Sanders supporter (I know that for a fact. Hi Robin.)

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who voted and left gave up an opportunity for involvement. Casing your ballot was easy, and thank you for doing that. But it wasn’t enough.

Also in the room were about a dozen Sanders supporters who I’m pretty sure (and in some cases, I’m certain of this) had not participated in the process before, ever, even though their ages ran from just eligible to vote to mid 40s or so. The chair of the caucus asked for a show of hands of how many people were new to the process. Several hands went up, and the rest of us cheered them and welcomed them. In other words, what some might call the “party insiders” (people who show up again and again) welcomed the noobies, and were very happy to have them there. So this was about a 50-50 mix of Clinton-Sanders supporters cheering on a bunch of new folks who were likely in majority Sanders supporters.

It was interesting to see what happened when resolutions were presented. Some of the resolutions caused these newer folks to take notice and ask questions. Two resolutions asked that various aspects of medical coverage for transgender medicine be restored to the state health plan. These provisions had been removed by the Republicans, and the Democrats wanted them back. The Sanders Noobies said things like “this shouldn’t apply to kids” and “this is a lifestyle choice, why should it be paid for by taxpayer?” and such. They did not understand that those are issues that have long been dealt with by the medical community, and were not concerns. (Much of this was explained to them by a transgender woman who was in the room). Once the Sanders Noobies understood this, they supported the resolutions (mainly, there were a couple of conservatives who voted against several liberal resolutions, which is of course their right). The same thing, roughly, happened with two or three other resolutions having to do with issues of race and racism.

That was fantastic. Sanders supporters, involved in the political process for the first time, were engaged in a conversation in which they became more aware of certain issues, and asked questions, and had a conversation.

Note to Sanders supporters: Those of you who stayed at the caucus meeting contributed to the conversation and learned more about the issues. That was involvement. Thank you for doing that.

At the Senate caucus, the resolutions were available to vote on, and there was extensive conversation about them. The conversation was so extensive that the chair of the caucus noted that he had never seen such involvement. Oh, and by the way, he also asked for a show of hands of those who were there for the first time. There were many, and the rest of us applauded and cheered them, and thanked them.

The Senate District Caucus, as noted, selects a subset of delegates to go forward. This was done as a walking caucus, and because of the way a walking caucus works, people were divided up into groups that had a candidate’s name (or uncommitted) along with an issue. For example, “Sanders and wealth inequality” or “Clinton and health care” or “Uncommitted and education,” etc.

The number of delegates that were elected to go on were about 50-50 Sanders vs. Clinton. (Slightly more for Clinton than Sanders.) In other words, a Sanders win in the presidential ballot preference (at the Precinct Caucus) was erased with respect to the delegates that went forward. Our Precinct caucus was allowed to send some 12 delegates forward, but only about 6 people volunteered, and of those, only two showed up at the Senate District Caucus.

Decisions are made by those who show up. Multiple times.

So the outcome of this process was that the ratio of Sanders to Clinton delegates who would support one of the candidates in a second ballot, or in convention business, or with the party platform, from our caucus, does not reflect the presidential ballot exactly because Sanders supporters did not show up. I checked on some other Senate District Caucuses, and others had better numbers for Sanders, but I think the final outcome is close to 50-50.

Note to Sanders supporters: Showing up at the precinct caucus to cast a presidential ballot, and then not showing up again, was not enough.

A walking caucus is a bit complicated, and there is a way to do it to maximize a preferred outcome in terms of delegates passed on to the next level. I note that the Clinton supporters at that event did so, but the Sanders supporters probably lost one delegate because the were imperfect in their strategy. Why were thy imperfect? Because this process, which is highly democratic, grass roots, conversational, and all that, is also a little complicated. In order to do it right, it is helpful to have a number of people who know what they are doing (because they did it once or twice before, or got a half hour of lessons form someone who knows how to do it … very doable) on your side. The Sanders Noobs, bless their pointy heads, may have lost one delegate because they did not show up multiple times over the long term (from year to year) and the Sanders campaign did not bother to engage in the “ground game” in Minnesota.

This illustrates a problem with democracy. The problem is not that the process is necessarily complicated so the good guys lose. The problem is that having a real conversation and real involvement is not simple, and requires a little more effort. This puts a small disadvantage on the insurgent, but only a small one. The outcome is that people show up, talk, listen, learn, influence, make things happen.

A word about New Hampshire, as promised.

In New Hampshire, you register for a party (Democratic or Republican) or as an independent. This registration then limits your choices for what happens in a primary (so it is a semi-closed primary). People who say they want the rules changed to allow better involvement object to this. If you are a Republican who decides you prefer a Democrat, you can’t vote for the Democrat. That is, of course, not really true because this is not the general election, it is the primary, but whatever.

Here’s the thing, though. If you are an independent in New Hampshire, you are a special political snowflake. The activists and campaigners in both major parties have your name (you are registered) and will court you and buy you coffee and talk to you and visit you and call you on the phone and give you a lot of attention, and pay careful attention to what you say. You are the subset of people who will determine the outcome of the primary, in many cases. This is a situation where the rules, which are restrictive, actually enhance and amplify involvement for those who register in this manner.

Something like this happens at a different level of intensity with party registration in general. Even where there is no registration in a party (like in Minnesota, we don’t register here), there is a list of probable party supporters. This underlies strategies for mailings, coffee clutches in homes, door to door visits, etc. Here’s a hint: If you want to have a bit more influence in the process, donate five dollars to a candidate. You and your views will be attended to, at least to some extent.

A word about party platforms. People say, without evidence generally, that party platforms are not important, that no one pays attention to them. At the state level, this is simply not true. The party platform is the legislative agenda of the party. The success of a party’s effort during a legislative session is measured by the degree to which the party platform, which was determined by the people who showed up — multiple times — was put into effect. Seated legislators and governors take credit for their implementation of the platform, or find reasons to explain (often blaming the other party) why planks from the platform were not implemented, in their campaign speeches, campaign literature, and appeals for funding.

It might be true that these things matter less at the national level, but there are some good reasons for that. National policy implementation is often more reactionary than at the state level because politics are often shaped by unexpected international events or an uncooperative economy. But it still matters.

Now, back to Minnesota for a moment, for another stab at problematizing the premise. All that caucus stuff I’m talking about allows involvement by citizens to shape the political future at the local, state, and national levels. But we often hear that a simple primary, where you just vote and go home, counts as better, or more real, or more meaningful involvement in the political process. (This of course ignores the fact that voting in a primary does not influence the party platform or other party issues.)

In Minnesota we also have a primary. It happens late in the process. One of the main objectives of the caucus system is to endorse candidates for Congress, and rat the state level and below (but not municipal, usually). The caucuses can endorse a candidate, but that endorsement does not mean that the candidate is put forward by the party. The candidate is only put forward if they get the majority of votes in the primary. Often, probably almost all the time in fact, the various candidates for a particular office fight for the endorsement, then drop out if they don’t get it. But sometimes one of those candidates, or an entirely different candidate that was not even involved in the endorsement process, puts their name in the primary and runs.

The reason this is interesting and important vis-a-vis the key points I’m making here is this. The system that many seem to prefer because they think it is true involvement (and anyone can vote in either primary, there are no restrictions, in Minnesota) actually has the potential to circumvent and obviate the grass roots endorsement process. It allows a person with means to swoop in and become the party’s nominee. This happened recently two times. In one case, a person of means swooped in and took the party’s nomination form the endorsed candidate for governor. He won the election and became one of the best governors we’ve ever had. In a different case, a person with means swooped in to try to take the party’s nomination at the primary from a highly regarded much loved State Auditor, who had been endorsed. In that case, the swooper spent piles of money on the primary but was roundly shellacked, losing in an historic landslide.

Note to those who want to switch to having a simple primary for everything because it allows for more democratic involvement by the citizens; No, it doesn’t.

“Voters should not be kept from involvement by rules that make it impossible for them to engage in the democratic (small “d”) process.”

It is not a simple truth that closed primaries or caucuses limit involvement. That can happen, but limitations (i.e., as in New Hampshire) can increase involvement. Citizens who want to be involved but found this difficult because they did not know or follow the rules have repressed their own involvement. Personally, I would advocate for open caucuses or open primaries, so I don’t disagree with the proposals being made so vocally these days. But I think that many who are calling for such reform do not really understand why we want it, how to do it, and what it will get us, and what we might in some cases lose from it.

The caucus system is better than the primary system in many ways, because it encourages and allows a lot of involvement. But in those instances were we are basically voting for a preference, the caucus system can be stifling. We need to ask what we want, how to do it, and what it will get us, at a more detailed level, and then find solutions that may in some cases be hybrids, or may in some cases require only minor tweaking in the system.

I think people need to ask themselves why they are independents. Some people are independents because they dislike the party system, but I’m sure they are wrong to think that. Parties are organizations that give voice and power to regular people. We should work towards enhancing that effect, not tossing it like bathwater out the window. Others recognize that being independent gives them a bit more political power than being a party member, in some cases. Those folks have a problem in states where not being registered in a party takes you out of the primary process. Those individuals have to decide if they want to engage in a party system for a given year or not, or they need to advocate for an open system in their state. I recommend following the first strategy immediately — learn the rules and use the party system when appropriate — while advocating long term for the second strategy. What I do not recommend is complaining about a system you don’t fully understand and demanding specific changes that would actually reduce, rather than increase, your involvement.

I also suggest that people do two other things. One is to remember that the primary system is a totally different process than the general election. In a way, you can’t actually suppress voting in a primary, because a primary (or caucus) is a way a party, which could select nominees in any of a number of ways, reaches out the the people. Furthermore, you are not really voting for a candidate, but for delegates, and by voting and walking away, you are not really even doing that.

The other thing is to understand the numbers better. This is a bit of a digression from the main points of this post, but important. Remember my comments above about percentages of Sanders vs. Clinton supporters in various subsets of people at these events. It is not the case that the “party faithful” or “established Democrats” (people who show up multiple times) are Clinton supporters and the Noobs are Sanders supporters. Yes, there are differences in proportion, but evidence from Minnesota belies this oversimplification. My best guess is that about half the established Democrats (we call ourselves DFLers here) in Minnesota are for Sanders, and half are for Clinton, but Sanders won the presidential preference ballot because some extra people who were mainly Sanders supporters showed up. But then many of those Sanders supporters did not show up multiple times. The influence they had was to put the state in the Sanders win column, but remember the numbers. Sanders only got a couple of more national delegates than Clinton, and in the end the two candidates will have the same number of supporters, I predict, at the convention. So, the only influence there is in one — critical but singular — event at the convention, the first ballot.

Democracy is great, and democracy is hard. There are reforms that are necessary, but gravitating towards easy, thinking that enhances democracy, is foolish. If you make it too easy it will not be as great.

And, really, it isn’t all that hard.

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2 thoughts on “Falsehood: “Voters are kept from political involvement by the rules”

  1. Greg,

    Why would you “advocate for open primaries”?

    I would advocate for strictly closed primaries. And beyond my preference, there is no legal way to enforce selection by open primary voting on parties anyway.

    If people payed to be able to vote in my party’s primary, thinking their vote would be determinative, it would be a different matter, of course, but then it wouldn’t be “open”.

    But it is a tough argument to make that just showing up and voting creates any contractual obligation.

  2. From over here in the UK, the idea that people who aren’t dues-paying party members (or dues-paying members of affiliated organisations such as trades unions) should get a say in selecting candidates seems very strange indeed.

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