Thursday, May 22, 2008

Count Every Vote

I believe in counting every vote, and that every vote counts. You wouldn't think that that would be that controversial a position, but these days it actually is. 

I. Choosing a Nominee: The Basics

Each party has as process for choosing their nominee for the presidency. They are a little different, and I am going to focus on Democratic Party's process. 

First, we have so-called pledged delegates. I say "so-called" because their pledges have no binding force, according to the DNC rules. When they were selected, they said (i.e. "pledged") that they would support a particular candidate, but they actually can do whatever they want. We all, especially the media, generally ignore that fact.

These pledged delegates are selected in two ways, caucuses and primaries. Technically, a primary is paid for by the state, and a caucus is paid for by the party. Generally, we ignore that, too. Instead, we talk about primaries as though they are like elections, but just with the candidates for the nomination of one party. We talk about caucuses as though they are more complicated affairs that take much longer, people do not have secret ballots and you can try to convince people to change their votes. All primaries are actually primaries, but some some caucuses actually work like primaries -- with the state party paying for them, of course,

Second, we have superdelegates. They are part of the rules, too. They add up to less than 1/5 of the total number of delegates. They, too, are selected democratically. Your senator is a superdelegate, and s/he was elected. Your congressman, too. Other superdelegates are elected by members of the party, both state and national. If you want to take part in that process, you have to be much more active in your party that you are. There are state conventions, to say nothing of local meeting and any other events I know virtually nothing about. You can be elected a member of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) that way. To be honest, these are not all direct elections. In the same way that you don't get to vote on federal laws, but instead the people you vote for get to vote on federal laws, some of the superdelegates are voted on with a representative system. There are also a very small number of unelected superdelegates, selected by elected leaders the state parties. 

There are over 4,000 delegates, total. The nominee needs to get over half of them.

II. Degrees of Democracy

Clearly, direct vote for candidates would be the most democratic system. But we don't have that for presidential elections -- instead we have the Electoral College -- and we don't have that for selecting nominees. I don't like it, but that's that way it is. 

Superdelegates are, generally, selected democratically, but not for this particular purpose. Whether or not this is a good idea or not does not matter in this discussion. They are a part of the process, but one might argue that they are the least democratic part of the process. 

Primaries, on the other hand, are probably the most democratic part of the process. They are the quickest way to vote, and therefore have higher turnout than caucuses. I can't even tell you how many times my mother took me with her to vote, counting primaries. We'd go down to the school and she'd take me into the booth with her. A parent with an infant could easily take him/her to vote, or a child of any age. Childcare responsibilities does not preclude participation. Because polls open all day, generally before and/or after working hours, having a job -- even on an odd shift -- does not preclude participation. I would certainly argue that higher turnout is more democratic, and therefore primaries (and primary-like caucuses) are the most democratic.

Traditional caucuses are somewhere in the middle. Delegates chosen this way are chosen directly for this purpose, but the inconvenience of these things (e.g. they take hours; they happen at a particular time) prevent many people from taking part. Less participation means less democratic, in my book. 

III. Choosing the Nominee: The Anti-Democratic Part

There are a few ways in which our system is actually anti-democratic. 

First, this is not a national system. By cutting the system up into states, there are some inefficiencies that can mess things up around the margins. Think about the Electoral College and the 2000 presidential election. No one questions that Gore had more votes nationally, but if without Florida, he lost in the Electoral College. 

Second, pledged delegates are not apportioned proportionally by total primary/caucus results in each state. Rather, the state is cut up into small pieces and the the delegates are won in each of those small pieces. This is like a little electoral college in each state. This principle is why we do not have third parties (e.g. Green, Libertarian) in the House of Representatives, even though they could win enough votes in the largest states to get a seat, were they allocated proportionally even by state. This does weird things to the math, so you actually have to look at each district to see how many delegates someone won in a state. This is why we need CNN on election nights. 

Third, delegates are assigned to the pieces not by population, registered democrats or turn out in the primary/caucus. Instead, they are assigned based on Democratic turnout last election. So, if your district was more turned off by Kerry/Bush than most, but is super-excited about Hillary/Obama, your old boredom prevents your greater turnout this time from having proportional weight. 

Fourth, all the little state things. In Nevada, some votes count more than other, as much as 20x more. That is how Obama got 6 more deletes, despite Hillary getting 600 more votes. In Texas, they have a primary and a caucus, which is how Obama got 5 more delegates despite Hillary getting 95,000 more votes. 

All of these issues hamper the system's ability to respond to the will of the people, as expressed by the simple idea of that the candidate with the most votes should win the nomination. 

IV. Who Set the Rules

Each state sets its own rules. If the state wants a primary, it has a primary. If it wants a caucus, it has a caucus. 

However, states are concepts, right? States don't make decisions; people make decisions. Which people? Well, the state government. So, the legislators and their governors. It's fairly democratic, as democratic as superdelegates.

But there is a problem. You see, some states governments are controlled by Democrats, and some Republicans. For example, Florida is controlled by Republicans. They set the rules of the primary. They set the date. They set the rules and the date of the Democratic primary. And this time, that caused a problem. The Republican controlled government set a date that the DNC did not approve of. But why should Republicans care? What can the DNC do them? 

Usually, this is not a problem, but it is a problem this year.

V. The Schedule

The DNC announced a schedule for this year's primaries and caucuses. First Iowa (1/14), as always. Then Nevada (1/19), to give the Southwest and Hispanics more a voice. Third was to be New Hampshire (1/22), as always the first primary. Fourth was to be the South Carolina primary (1/29), to give the South and African-Americans and early voice.

Then, other states could go, but only after February 5. The two caucuses in the first week. Then a week just for New Hampshire and a week just for South Carolina. And then everybody else. 

But Florida decided to go early. They didn't leap ahead of any of the four early states, but they wanted to go the same day as South Carolina. The Florida Republicans made this decision. Not the Democrats in the legislature. Not the Democratic voters. Not even the Republican voters. And once Florida went early, Michigan did not see a reason why it couldn't go early, too. Michigan was willing to respect the tradition of Iowa and New Hampshire going first, but it had no respect for Nevada or South Carolina.

And once Michigan went early, Iowa and New Hampshire decided to go even earlier. And New Hampshire even jumped ahead in line, ahead of Nevada. 

VI. Meting Out Punishments

Iowa was not punished. They were alway supposed to the first and they stayed first. They went even earlier, but who cares, right? New Hampshire, on the other hand, they skipped ahead in line. But they weren't punished, either. 

Florida and Michigan were punished, however. The Republican Party cut half the delegate count for the primaries that moved their dates before 2/5, including New Hampshire. But the DNC did not punish the New Hampshire for its convention. 

Just focusing on Florida here, think about who was punished for what. It was the state Republicans who scheduled the primary, but it is the Democratic voters who are being punished here. The party stripped Florida of all of its delegates to the convention. The DNC disenfranchised every single potential Florida Democratic primary voter. They did this last August, in an effort to get the state to moved its primary back. But why would the Republicans in charge care? No delegates to the Democratic National Convention? That's no skin off their backs. 

The Republicans violated the principal of "One man, one vote," going to "One man, half vote" for some states. But the Democratic Party violated the principal of "Every Vote Counts."

VII. Good Idea or Bad Idea?

There are rules, and I understand this. There is a Rules committee that makes and tries to enforce the rules. Sometimes they make good decisions, and sometimes they make bad decisions. 

This is a bad decision. 

First, they are punishing the voters, not the people who made the decisions. 

Second, if their decision ends up affecting the outcome of the nominating process, that would mean that they are leading to the selection of a candidate who is less appealing to Florida and Michigan voters. I can see why the GOP would want that. But why would that be good for the party? Doesn't it hurt the party's chance's of winning the White House?

Third, in a close race, it makes Obama look weak. Whether or not it actually makes a difference, it looks like Obama could not win the nomination outright, and that he needed to resort to technicalities to secure it. With blowout losses in late states, its puts his own legitimacy into question. And I believe that in order to win a nominee has to look like he deserves to win it. People want strong winners. If he can win it, even counting Florida and Michigan -- and he can -- he looks stronger. If he can only win it if the DNC does not count Michigan and Florida...?

VII. Pledged Delegates or Total Votes

The superdelegates are part of the rules. People who claim that they are not part of the rules are deluded. Furthermore, people who say that the superdelegates are deciding this for themselves are also deluded. The superdelegates are deciding it along with the pledged delegates. 

Obama is ahead in pledged delegates, superdelegates and the popular vote total, even if you count Michigan and Florida. He will remain ahead in pledged delegates, no matter what. However, nearly 200 superdelegates have yet to announce anything, and the others can easily change their minds.

And then we get to the popular vote, which is all I really care about. It is possible that Hillary will win the total popular vote.

(Explanation: Four caucus states don't actually count individual votes, so you have to impute those results a little bit. Obama and Edwards took their names off the ballot in Michigan, so you have to split the "uncommitted" vote there somehow. If you do both of those things, the popular vote total is very close right now, with Obama up maybe 0.33%, with Puerto Rico, South Dakota and Montana still to vote.)

What happens to Obama's legitimacy if he goes into the convention with more pledged delegates, even counting Florida and Michigan, but fewer popular votes. How should the superdelegates respond to that.

I entirely grant that Barack Obama deserves the nomination more than Hillary Clinton. He ran from behind, he out-raised her, out-organized her, understood the rules better and actually has won more pledged delegates.

But what do the voters deserve? Isn't that what this should be about? Isn't that what a democracy should be about?

There is a lot of complicated mess in this system. I would hope that at the end of the day it can find a way to give the voters what they deserve. The superdelegates can do that. They can fix an obviously mistaken outcome without breaking any rules. I have said all along that superdelegates should support the candidate with the most votes. If that is Barack Obama, then they should support him. If it is Hillary Clinton, they should support her.

Not because Obama or Clinton deserve it. But because the voters do.

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