Thursday, May 22, 2008
There was unfortunate symbolism in Barack Obama's choice of Des Moines as the place to celebrate his delegate milestone on the day of the Kentucky and Oregon primaries. The Iowa caucuses were the first contest of the nominating process, and Obama's success in them launched his campaign into the big time. But they were also the start of a deeply undemocratic process.
The caucuses produced no vote count. There were no secret ballots -- but instead a public two-hour tussle that disenfranchised many parents of small children, shift workers and those who couldn't drive in the dark. Certain caucus-goers enjoyed several times the clout of others -- it depended on where they lived. The result was not an election of delegates but of "delegate equivalents," a term with an Orwellian ring.
Obama didn't make these rules, and one can't begrudge him for playing the game so well. But at the end of the day, his resounding "victory" was the product of having a crack team of activists take advantage of a crazy system.
So Hillary Clinton has a point when she adds up a popular vote in her favor that excludes certain caucuses from the count. The undemocratic nature of the caucuses became especially transparent in states that held primaries as well as caucuses.
In Washington state, Obama won over 51 percent of the primary vote to Clinton's 46 percent. But he walked off with twice as many delegates because he did far better in the caucuses, and Washington Democrats use only caucus results in determining delegates.
Texas held both a primary and caucus on the same day, and both produced delegates. But while Clinton beat Obama by 4 percentage points in the primary's popular vote, she fell three short in delegates because the Obama supporters maneuvered so effectively around the caucuses.
Of course, Clinton can't get away with including the Florida and Michigan primary results in her popular vote count. They broke party rules by moving up the dates of their primaries, and Obama's name wasn't even on the ballot in Michigan.
But the Democratic National Committee still has a diplomatic solution at its disposal: Simply hold new primaries in Florida and Michigan. Just do it, and stop all this talk about punishing these states for jumping the gun.
Speaking of guns, the Democratic National Committee is putting one to its own head by denying voters in two key swing states their say in the nomination process. These are Clinton strongholds, where many Hillary supporters are already enraged for a number of reasons. They went to the polls in good conscience. Why are they being punished?
But the DNC will almost certainly not choose to re-do the two primaries. Instead, it will probably pile insult onto injury by trying to cut the baby in half -- that is, seat only half the delegates from these states. Wonder how these voters will respond to this application of child psychology: "Your leaders misbehaved so you only get half of your dessert."
Let's be honest: Delegates and not the popular vote determine the winner here. Obama seems the inevitable victor in delegates.
But the Democrats' discussion of delegate math is already moving to Electoral College math, and here the skies turn cloudier for their likely candidate. One fear is a repeat of 2000, when Democrat Al Gore got a plurality of the popular vote, but Republican George W. Bush won on the basis of the Electoral College tally. Not very democratic, was it?
If Democrats ever intend to again argue that the raw numbers should determine the next president -- and not an archaic system that can frustrate the democratic will -- they might start by setting a better example.
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