Don't Seat Michigan's Delegates

Politicians can be myopic. Under current party rules, my state’s delegation will not be seated at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. All of Michigan is disenfranchised. Prominent Democrats are franticly searching for a way to seat these delegates in a way that doesn’t appear to compromise the ongoing primary process. They worry that not seating the Michigan delegation will leave Michigan voters bitter and hurt them in the November election.

They should give up. Michigan voters are already embittered—and fussing about how to seat the delegation without a meaningful election will only make things worse.

Here’s how we got into the mess we’re in. Strike that. Here’s how the Democrats got into the mess they’re in:

Iowa and New Hampshire get the first caucus and primary respectively. Why? A long time ago they decided that they get to go first—and nobody with political ambitions wants to anger them because, after all, they go first. This means that no Presidential hopeful wants say anything that angers either state—and questioning their primacy is an easy way to do that. Thus, the Democrats came up with a plan where Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, and this year, Nevada have contests before Super Tuesday and the rest of the states sort of wait their turns. Any state that didn’t play ball would would have all of its delegates stripped. Additionally, any candidates who wanted to be on the Iowa and New Hampshire ballots had to sign a pledge not to campaign or participate in any of these contests. All of the candidates did so.

Michigan thought this system was bad for Michigan and bad for America. (I tend to agree. And so did Florida, who did much the same thing and ended up in a similar situation.) They decided to call the Democratic National Convention’s bluff and move their primary to the very front. It was a bluff, right? The DNC could never be short-sighted enough to disenfranchise a critical swing state in order to uphold arbitrary and recently drafted party rules? Wrong. Never underestimate the DNC’s capacity for short-sightedness.

Michigan was stripped of its delegates. No candidates campaigned there. Most of the major candidates removed their names from the ballots. For some reason, Hillary Clinton did not, though she said (at the time) that the Michigan primary wouldn’t “count for anything.” Michigan’s move triggered automatic “we go first” rules in Iowa and New Hampshire, moving their dates up. Thus, despite Michigan being the third contest, it was mostly a beauty contest.

Voters could choose between Hillary Clinton, Dennis Kucinich, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, and, if they wanted to show up and vote for nobody, “Uncommitted.” By the time of the primary, Dodd had officially dropped out of the race. The results? Hillary Clinton won with an embarassingly narrow 55.3% of the vote. “Uncommitted” came in second with 40% of the vote. Kucinich got 3.7%. Dodd and Gravel split the remaining 1%. Write-in votes for either Obama or Edwards were discarded. Clinton supporters will point out that Obama and Edwards supporters pushed to persuade people to vote uncommitted. The effort was unorganized and unfunded. That 40% represents Obama or Edwards supporters who somehow learned that write-ins would not be counted and decided to show up to vote for nobody in an election they were promised would not count anyway.

As it turns out, the primary is (relatively) close. The exclusion of Michigan and Florida will give an air of illegitimacy to the whole process if it is close enough that the two states would make a difference. Of course, if party officials change the rules to allow Michigan and Florida to suddenly count, that will give an even larger air of illegitimacy, unless one candidate has a large enough lead that it wouldn’t make a difference. (Currently, Obama is leading by enough that he would still have a lead even if Hillary gets credit for “victories” in the two uncontested states, but it would cut significantly into his lead and leave him open to wrangling at a brokered convention.)

If Clinton counts her Michigan votes, the “popular vote” starts to look fairly close. Of course, this gives Clinton 55% of Michigan and Obama nothing, which is one of the reasons “popular vote” gets the mocking quotation marks.

By any account, it’s a mess. Leaving Michigan’s delegation out is a slight to Michigan—which the Democrats need to win in November.

Are there better options?

A second primary?

One option that got tossed around was the redo-primary option. Clinton’s campaign pushed this one. Unfortunately, a statewide primary costs millions of dollars. Michigan’s economy is doing terribly already and the state already paid for another. The state doesn’t want to gouge millions out of other programs to bail out the prodigal Democrats. Neither the state nor the national Democratic party wanted to offer the money. If they even had that kind of money, they needed to spend it getting other candidates elected. Since neither could agree who was at fault, both thought the other should pay, which meant neither would pay.

A mail-in election was briefly floated as a cheaper option. The campaigns would hire a private company to do the counting—which raised some theoretical concerns. But disenfranchising an entire state raises more theoretical concerns. The Obama campaign objected that the mail-in vote would not be “fraud-proof.” This was probably too mild. When people have to show up in person to vote, poll workers are there to spot somebody who is trying to vote multiple times. You might be able to vote in different precincts using different names or the names of the recently deceased—but overall, it would take an immense effort to garner (maybe) five fraudulent votes. With the mail-in primary, you could mail in as many ballots as you wanted using the names of as many people as you knew wouldn’t be voting and have a negligible chance of being caught. Alternatively, you could cast ballots under the name of somebody you knew would be voting against your candidate so that two or three ballots showed up in that person’s name and their vote would be tossed out. Then there are the more traditional forms of mail interception and tampering. One dishonest postal worker could wreak havoc on the entire system. So I guess you could call the plan “not fraud-proof.”

Perhaps a traditionally primary could happen if it were privately funded? Both campaigns have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. If they each ponied up $5 million, they could cover it and not miss the money. Alternatively, they could tap some of their billionaire buddies and privately fund the primary. A privately funded election should raise a few concerns about the integrity of the election, but whatever. The whole process is enough of a mess that we’re past worries about conceptual integrity. We just need something practically fair, reasonably secure, and representative.

Then who gets to vote? The January 15 election was an open primary. Anybody registered to vote could vote for either party. Some Democrats voted for Romney, hoping to give the Republicans the most odious candidate possible. Other Democrats voted for McCain, hoping to at least knock the most odious candidate out of the race. Can registered Democrats who voted for Republicans in January vote in the new primary? What about registered Republicans? The Clinton camp insisted on getting the list of who had voted for whom and excluding anybody who had voted for Republicans. Unsurprisingly, this would exclude quite a number of Obama’s supporters who either didn’t get the memo on voting uncommitted or didn’t trusted everybody who told them that the Democrats wouldn’t count Michigan and wanted to vote for the least odious candidate that would count their vote. One survey showed that 18% of Obama’s supporters would prefer Clinton to McCain. That’s a huge percentage of Obama’s supporters who could have taken a Republican ballot rather than vote for Clinton. Similarly, the on-the-fence independents (who traditionally have broken toward Obama) almost certainly also voted in the election that counted. Clinton’s supporters insisted that those who had voted for Republicans couldn’t vote again. Obama’s supporters would not back the plan. In fairness to both sides, it is unfair if some people get their vote counted twice, but it is also unfair if the rules change mid-game and those same people are suddenly not permitted to vote for their candidate of choice. In the end, the question was moot because the party could not get the list of who had voted in the Republican primary. (There is a history of litigation over these lists and whether the first election was even constitutional—but that’s another story.)

Maybe a caucus?

For a while, some Obama supporters were hoping there might be a Michigan caucus to award delegates. Washington has both a caucus and a primary—but the caucus is the one that awards delegates. Since a caucus is a different form than the primary it could partially avoid the double-voting problem. Best of all, a caucus is significantly cheaper than a primary. The turnout is lower. There is no secret ballot. It only lasts a few hours at a specific time of day. All these things save money. It also makes it a significantly less democratic system than the primary. Many state parties like caucuses because it’s a way to get a bunch of people out to a party meeting and get more people involved. It caters to the most enthusiastic parts of the party who are willing to give up a few hours of their day to support a candidate.

Clinton’s campaign nipped this idea in the bud. They said, “You can’t replace a primary with a caucus.” Technically, of course, you can. It would be a step backwards to replace a proper primary with a caucus—but the primary was far more flawed than even the most mangled caucus could be. (I’m thinking of you, Nevada and Texas!) What the campaign meant was that Clinton would lose a caucus like she has lost almost every caucus so far.

The caucus caters to the most enthusiastic—and Clinton suffers from an enthusiasm gap. She has frequently picked up the “late deciders” in elections.

Who are the late deciders? I’m a “late decider” every year in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl’s this Sunday? Huh. Who’s playing? Ah. The Patriots. I’ve heard of them. Go Patriots… I guess. We “late deciders” watch the game if our friends invite us to a party. We eat the snacks. We cheer when it would be awkward not to cheer.

When it comes to an election, the late deciders go to the polls after they see a certain number of “I Voted” stickers and feel awkward without one.

Clinton’s supporters have as much a right to vote as anybody else, but Obama’s margin of victory tends to increase when the lukewarm supporters decide to stay home. So the caucus idea failed.

Can we just seat the delegates as assigned?

Not really. The election had a few problems. First, one candidate’s name was on the ballot and the other was not. Incomplete ballots might work in China or Iran—but not here. Secondly, neither candidate campaigned. There were no debates. There were no television ads. There were no rallies or chances to talk to the candidates. The only people with yard signs are those who imported them from other states or made them themselves. Michigan voters did not get a chance to evaluate their candidates. Thirdly, Michigan voters were told their votes would not matter. Many didn’t bother showing up.

Can we do something weird to get the delegates seated?

Recently we’ve seen a few novel proposals for how Michigan should assign its delegates. One Michigan congressman recently floated a proposal that would award some of the delegates based off the “primary” results and some based off the national popular vote. This would allow the party activists a chance to vacation in Denver and sit in on the convention. And technically it would seat the Michigan delegation. Or it would seat a Michigan delegation. But not anything that reflects the actual will of Michigan.

One of the Obama people has proposed splitting the state evenly. That would also seat a delegation. It would be fair to the two candidates. But it wouldn’t give Michigan a chance to vote.

These compromise solutions that try to seat representatives of Michigan without regard to Michiganders having a meaningful chance to vote for those representatives still disenfranchises Michigan’s voters. We used to have this sort of virtual representation. Then we had the Revolutionary War.

So what should happen?

Let’s be clear. We got into this mess because the Michigan Democrats broke the stupid rules and the Democratic National Committee decided to enforce the stupid rules. None of these proposals will be fair to both campaigns and the people of Michigan.

If we’re going to salvage anything from this mess, it should be a lesson: don’t disenfranchise an entire state.

Michigan’s spot at the DNC should be roped off and left empty. The state’s name should be read in the roll call and greeted with… silence. Where is Michigan? Oh. That’s right. We excluded them. Kind of awkward, isn’t it?

At this point, that awkwardness is the only representation I expect. The Democrats put an internal party struggle before the voting rights of the people. Admitting they screwed up is the first step toward reconciliation.