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In Defence of our Nomination Process

February 14th, 2008

Seems this presidential election cycle has uncovered a new American past-time: complaining about the nomination process. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a blogger, newspaper editorialist, or relative who has a beef with the rules that govern this process. Mind you, their complaints are not directed at the candidates themselves, the ire is reserved for the cold and impersonal regulations that govern the candidates’ behavior.

I’m going to pretty much ignore the Republican process here, because this is about “our” process, not “their” process. Let their own youthful rules wonks defend that momentum obsessed coronation processes. This is a rebuttal to the critiques of the Democratic party. There are four major complaints I’ve heard leveled this cycle, so allow me to take them one at a time:

Caucuses are Out-Dated

I read this one just today at my alma-mater’s newspaper. Yes, I still read The Daily… old habits die hard. Of course, this argument is also being implicitly made by the Clinton campaign because the scheduling of the caucuses, one hour on a weekend, tend to be unfavorable to working class voters that Clinton believed she had wrapped up (c.f. Potomac Primary exit polls). Folks also like to throw in absentee voters, especially military folks, who are simply unable to participate. These aren’t bad points, but they make a fundamental assumption about the nomination process that is not, and never has been, true.

It seems caucus nay-sayers are under the mistaken impression they have an unalienable right to participate in the nomination process. Well, I suggest everyone break out your pocket constitution and see if you can find any reference to such a right… while you’re there, check to see if there is any mention of nominations at all. None? That’s because nominations are a construction of political parties, a way for party members to decide who to place the party’s resources behind. Turns out, for practical reasons, you cannot get elected to the office of President in a nation of America’s size without the resources of either the Democratic or Republican party, but it’s not a Constitutional requirement, and no one has an inalienable right to participate in that decision.

Starting from that understanding, the decision to caucus instead of hold a primary is really a matter of regional and historical preference. Primaries are impersonal but efficient, caucuses are more home-town but unwieldy. But the decision to use either one is made by members of the party, not the states and not the general electorate. The Washington State Democratic Party is responsible for deciding how it is going to allocate its delegates based on shared objectives and values. This ensures that the party faithful have their say in the process, because being a member of the faithful comes with a cost…

Consider, in 2004 I caucused for Howard Dean… but John Kerry ended up with the nomination. And like a good party faithful, I voted for Mr. Kerry. I didn’t vote Nader, Bush, or just stay home. I accepted my party’s nominee because the party faithful had decided to back Kerry… but more importantly, because in the general election I really had no other choice. The caucus was my one chance to cast a meaningful ballot.

Super Delegates are Non-Democratic

This is a long identified “flaw” in the Democratic nomination process.. nearly 25% of the delegates are individuals who are not pledged going into the convention. But it’s simply incorrect to consider them “unelected” or “unaccountable.” Super Delegates are elected representatives, DNC committee members, and interest group representatives (like union leaders). These are the folks who make decisions for us ALL the time, because they were elected to do so. Being a part of the nomination process is a natural role for them to hold.

What really gets me about this argument is the claim that Super Delegates could “make the difference”… the difference?! Depending on the margin between the two candidates, Wyoming could make the difference. Any block of votes can tip any election, there is nothing special about the Super Delegates. That doesn’t stop pundits from assigning near super levels of coordination to these elected representatives. There is an assumption that if Clinton and Obama show up in Denver with only a few hundred delegates gap between them, then the Super Delegates will simply “chose” the winner. I’d just like to see that actually happen! Can you imagine all the Democratic members of Congress, State governors, DNC committee members, and interest groups going into a room and deciding “let’s all vote for so and so.” These folks can’t agree on a response to the war, were they stand on fiscal discipline, or just how much spying the government should be allowed to do on it’s own people… why do we think they’ll be able to agree on a single candidate for president? The only shared criteria I’ve been able to decipher is that the candidate not be named George W. Bush, but beyond that, I think these Super Delegates are going to behave like the independent rational actors we elected them to be. If the state’s cannot figure it out between now and Denver, I can think of no better group of people to act as a tie breaker than our elected leaders.

Proportional Representation is Unfair

I don’t even get this… but a Washington Post editorialist who shall remain nameless (*cough* Ruth Marcus *cough*) seems to be making the argument. The core point seems to be, Clinton won California, so why doesn’t she have a HUGE lead? That’s how it works in the General, darn it! Yeah, well, your complaints ought to be directed at the General Election, not the primaries. Winner-take-all only makes sense if your objective is to have a coronation like the Republicans have. But, if your intention is to reflect the subtleties of the Democratic party, then you’ve got to do the proportional thing. Having said that, there is some strange math with congressional districts that have an odd number of delegates. I can’t really defend that, except to say that electoral math is a long held tradition in this country, and you’ve got to be willing to play the game.

It’s All Too Confusing

Good! It’s supposed to be confusing. Systems that are fair often are, because an “easy” system is also one that can be manipulated and controlled in scary ways (see the discussion about winner-takes-all). But, let’s address a common critique that confusing means non-transparent. Transparency has become a big buzzword this decade, and for good reason. I’m all for transparency. But that something is confusing does not mean it’s not transparent. Perhaps it takes some knowledge and a little research to understand, but as long as the information is there for anyone to examine, then it’s transparent.

Great example… our judicial system. Amazingly transparent. All of the briefs, court records, and decisions are right there for anyone to look at. It’s way more transparent then the legislative branch (let’s not even get started about the executive branch). Trouble is, all those documents are complicated and require training to understand… which is to say, it’s complicated. But the fact that I can follow a judicial decision from the very start of the incident all the way to the final determination is the kind of transparency we can only dream of in the other branches.

So, to those who complain they don’t understand the nomination process… check out Wikipedia or ask someone involved with your local state political party. No one is trying to hide the ball here, we’re just making sure the rules ensure a fair resolution to the single most important question facing Democrats today: who will represent our party in the race for the President of the United States.

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  1. Alfredo
    February 15th, 2008 at 01:02 | #1

    Good post, one quick point on proportional representation. I was curious about this myself so for the fun of it, or just to avoid work, I added up the pledged delegate totals for Obama and Clinton if they had recieved all the delegates for each state won. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that under such a system the candidates would still be within 30 delegates of each other and Obama would still be in the lead.


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