Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Unity Reform Commission: If both sides are complaining, then you must be doing something right.

Recently, FHQ spent some time discussing Sanders-appointed Unity Reform Commission member, Nomiki Konst's charge that the URC has been or could end up being a "dog and pony show" in part because it is "stacked" with members who will vote against the reforms Sanders himself is promoting.

These sorts of accusations are not and have not been exclusive to the Sanders wing of the URC. Whichever name one settles on, the Clinton/establishment/anti-Sanders faction on the commission and its supporters have also made similar statements, whether calling the URC [potentially] "rigged" in Sanders' favor or that the URC will have been a "sham" if it does not accomplish this reform or shoot down that proposal. Both of those quoted charges above come from Armando over at Daily Kos. And, look, both pieces (see links) and any subsequent ones in the series are worth a read. But each suffers from a level of Sanders conspiracy theorizing that just does not jibe with reality of discussions on the commission.

Everything there centers on the same hypothetical proposal that FHQ discussed at length back in September (excerpted below) and has been a drum Armando has continued to beat in the time since:
While the spotlight is on caucuses, I want to take an opportunity to address a rather strange narrative on caucuses that has blossomed during the summer months. The idea, as proffered by Armando at Daily Kos and picked up by some in the national media, amounts to this: Sanders-affiliated members of the URC are aiming to propose "a rule that will call for the the Democratic Party Presidential nominating rules to require a state either hold open primaries or if the state refuses, and instead holds a closed primary, that a state party hold a caucus instead to select presidential nomination delegates." 
Now, on the one hand, this would create an expansion of the types of contests in which Sanders was most successful during the 2016 presidential primary calendar. That would be an understandable push for Sanders-appointed members on the Commission, and the behavior would not necessarily be that atypical. Proxies advancing the interests of their candidates in these settings is nothing new. What would be different is the Sanders folks attempting to include such a proposal among the recommendations the URC will make as 2017 comes to a close. 
I say that for a number of reasons. 
1) Nothing along these lines has come up at any of the three Unity Reform Commission meetings. 
NOTE: That was true again following the fourth meeting of the URC in Las Vegas. Nothing in the context of the caucuses discussion indicated that this open-primaries-or-else-caucuses proposal was among the Sanders faction's demands. Instead, the focus from the Sanders-affiliated "convener" of the caucuses subgroup was on training of those conducting caucuses, making that training uniform across precincts within state and across states, and on reporting first-tier results in a standardized system housed at the DNC (with an eye toward streamlining the challenges process).
2) It is not that the Sanders appointees cannot push a measure like this, but rather, that they would likely have a difficult time garnering the votes necessary -- a majority -- to make such a recommendation. Clinton-affiliated members outnumber those appointed by Sanders, and new party chair, Tom Perez, filled the remaining three slots on the URC. And even if the votes were there, the measure would still have to make it through the Rules and Bylaws Committee and the full Democratic National Committee to be enacted. 
3) That is even less likely given that the supposed proposal would face some of the same roadblocks as a rule eliminating caucuses, namely, funding. The Democratic National Committee would find it difficult to force a state/state party to have caucuses in lieu of a closed primary. First, the political landscape currently is not amenable to opening primaries as has been dealt with already. Republicans, at the moment, control too many of the state-level levers of power. That may change in 2018, but is unlikely to be reversed to an extent that newly-empowered Democrats could -- or even would -- open up primaries. And to force states in that category to hold caucuses would be unnecessarily and historically (in this context) punitive. State parties would have to give up a funded election and foot the bill for caucuses. Some states do that, but they are, as was pointed out above, very few in number. 
4) It would be odd to allow states constrained by state-level partisan factors to apply for a waiver from penalties on something like what Minnesota Democrats faced in 2012 because of their statutorily mandated caucuses scheduling and not on something like how opened a primary is to unaffiliated voters. There would be an inconsistency there. There are inconsistencies in the delegate selection rules to be sure, but they tend to be on matters much less consequential than penalties on violating states. 
5) The history of carrots and sticks offered by the DNC does not match this hypothetical proposal. Those have been used to combat issues where there was a widespread view that the matter was problematic. Frontloading is a great example. That increasingly more states were moving up their delegate selection events and clustering on earlier dates was seen -- regardless of which candidate one was rooting for on past rules commissions -- as a problem for the nominating system, not just a particular candidate. This proposal would mark a significant departure from that pattern of rule making. 
Until the evidence changes and such a proposal is put forth, this is not something that should be taken seriously. The reality is that this proposal and the weird narrative around it are an engineered vehicle for some within the broader Democratic Party coalition to vent about some of the more vocal Sanders appointees on the URC if not Sanders supporters more broadly. It just would not be a serious proposal even if all of the Sanders appointees on the URC were publicly in favor of it. Those folks are still in the minority on the Commission.  
In the end, it would still be more likely to see Sanders acolytes do what Ron Paul/Tea Party folks did after 2008. That is, attempt to fairly take over state parties and opt for closed caucuses over wider turnout primaries. The Tea Party era attempts failed in that bottom line, and it is still a likelier end point for Sanders folks than this unserious "proposal".
Continuing to fear monger about something that there is little, if any, evidence is actually on the table and just simply is unlikely to pass muster with the URC (even if it was on the table) is misguided. And it is not as if Sanders' points do not have their flaws. They do. The bulk of them face structural issues (pardon the "storifying" of these):

And Armando, to his credit, fits some discussion of those limitations into his pieces. However, there are a few additional spots in the first piece where he overstates just how clear the mandate is on the URC and how we should handicap what is likely to emerge in terms of recommendations.

First, on the caucuses and primaries, he states:
"The bare minimum the DNC can do to “encourage the expanded use of primary elections” is to prohibit state parties from using caucus results when their state governments hold primaries. If the URC fails to propose this reform, you will know this process was a sham. The DNC can also encourage the use of primaries by favoring states using  them with an award of more delegates than states that use caucuses."
This "bare minimum", it could be argued, aims quite a bit higher than what is in reality the true bare minimum the URC could offer in this area. The eighth tweet in the thread above on open primaries presents a clear example of this. Want to encourage the use of primaries over caucuses? Encourage primaries over caucuses. Just insert that language with the necessary caveats that acknowledge the structural roadblocks that stand in the way. That is what the DNC has done on the inclusivity of unaffiliated voters for cycles now. 

The same type of caveats apply to caucuses in states where there is a primary on the books. Yes, those states tend to have open primaries as Armando notes. But they also have tended to be primaries that occur later in the calendar. That was true for both Nebraska and Washington. In fact, the primary-to-caucus switch in Nebraska in 2007 was calendar-based. Washington has always been a bit complicated. But, then again, stories in caucus states typically are. There are idiosyncrasies under the surface that lead to states falling in the caucus category, and more often than not, they are some combination of political/partisan and financial, not suppression.

But that is a charge -- suppression -- that has been leveled more vocally this time around that may push the URC or the DNC to go beyond a passive encouragement and to instead do something with some more teeth. That passive encouragement, however, is the bare minimum here. 

Caucuses, then, will survive into 2020, but with a reduced footprint even before new delegate selection rules are crafted. Already ColoradoMaine and Minnesota have made moves to add state-funded primary options for the next presidential nomination cycle. But what of the remainder? Here Armando mentions the requirement that the URC consider so-called "firehouse caucuses".
"The DNC of course cannot require states to hold primaries, so some state parties will have no choice but to hold caucuses. But here the URC enabling resolution is also quite clear—it calls for making caucuses as much like primaries as possible. The express mention of “firehouse caucuses”—which entail providing as many voting locations as possible for the longest possible voting hours, with no requirement for spending long hours at a caucus standing in corners, is also indicative of the desire to diminish the use of traditional caucuses."
That "consider" is important. The URC's predecessor, the Democratic Change Commission, was charged with considering absentee voting in caucuses after 2008. And while there was experimentation with the practice it was not widespread in either 2012 or 2016. 

Firehouse caucuses are an extension of the firehouse primary concept. In fact, they are the same thing: a party-funded primary. As one looks at the state-level landscape, there are no longer any party-run primaries. South Carolina and Utah Democrats had the remaining party-run primaries, but found state funding or switched to caucuses during the first decade of the 21st century. And there is a reason there are not many party-run primaries. They are expensive. It is one thing for a state/local party to rent out locations across a state for precinct caucuses for a few hours at night. But to staff and rent out locations all day or during voting hours is something that most states faced with the option have rightly or wrongly avoided. That is the trade-off: lower turnout or less money in the coffers for other party business (and/or general elections). This is the tough part and why the national party has mostly deferred to the state parties to settle on a solution that fits them best. 

Finally, Armando raises the bonus delegates as incentive to draw states/state parties into doing what the national party wants. 
"The only proposal I can think of here that is consistent with encouraging the use of primary elections is to provide bonus delegates to states that use same-day registration. Note the mandate here is not for open primaries that permit Republican voters to cross over and vote in Democratic primaries. Rather it is to permit unaffiliated voters to vote in Democratic primaries. Since the DNC can’t dictate to states, its only option appears to be to provide extra delegates to states that permit same-day registration."
This is an idea that has come up a number of times surrounding and within the context of the Unity Reform Commission. Yes, the DNC has used a bonus delegate regime to help keep states in line on the primary calendar -- go later, get more delegates -- and to encourage states to cluster their contests -- hold a contest alongside other regional partners, get some additional delegates. But the record on these incentives is spotty at best. 

Actually, they have not really worked. The Republican Party had a similar system and dropped it due to its ineffectiveness and curbing frontloading. And the successes the DNC has had have been due to already late states staying late (see Arkansas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania for much of the post-reform era) or Democratic-controlled states moving back in non-competitive cycles (see the bloc of mid-Atlantic/northeastern states that shifted out of non-compliant February positions to April 2012 and stayed in 2016). California similarly shifted back after 2008, but did so not for extra delegates, but for budgetary reasons. That often proves more instrumental in the decision-making among state legislators than some extra delegates here or there. 

It is not clear, then, that delegate bonuses would have the desired effect of eliminating caucuses in primary states or opening primaries, as has been mention by occasional Armando foil and Sanders URC member, Nomiki Konst at the Vegas meeting. 

Carrots have not generally worked. Sticks have. Delegate penalties have been more effective -- offered across party lines -- at keeping states in line. But it is not at all clear that that is an option for Democrats and they will not necessarily have buy-in from Republicans on similar penalties. Caucus states do not match up across the parties, nor does a desire to have more open, inclusive processes. No, having Republicans onboard is not a goal in and of itself. Most Democrats would balk at the idea. But presenting a united front on penalties often helps make them more effective, albeit on common problems. 
Look, FHQ does not mean to nitpick here, but if one is setting a bar on what to expect from the URC, then aim for something more modest. A divided commission (in terms of how it came into being) such as this one is more likely to agree on smaller, incremental changes than larger ones that are more likely to drive a wedge or wedges between the two camps. And keep in mind, the DNC will have the final say, influenced not only by the URC but by the deliberations of the Rules and Bylaws Committee as well. Again, this fifth URC meeting and the recommendations/report is but the end of the beginning. 

No comments: