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May 3, 2010

Parallel 44: Resisting democracy

by Colin Woodard

One of America's less pleasant political traditions has been the effort to ensure ordinary people don't get too much say in the process. Among the Founding Fathers there was little disagreement over the desirability of keeping the elite in control, which is why most states forbid poor people to vote, persons of modest means from holding higher office, and anyone who wasn't really rich from standing for governor.

"The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right," Alexander Hamilton told the Constitutional Convention. "Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government...a permanent body [to] check the impudence of democracy." Many of his colleagues agreed. For decades, voters didn't get to chose their senators in most states (their legislators did it for them) and technically they still don't pick the president, as legally there's little stopping the electoral college electors from doing whatever they please.

These Hamiltonian checks on democracy reared their ugly heads during the 2008 presidential primary season, when both parties had highly competitive nomination races. For a time it seemed the Democratic candidate for president might be chosen not by the people, but by a group of party insiders called superdelgates, many of whom hadn't been elected to office by at all.

As a result, for the first time in years, Maine voters focused on the party's respective systems for determining the will of their members and what they saw wasn't pretty.

Maine Democrat's caucus was flawed by poorly conceived rules that, in practice, make a mockery of any notion that each citizen's vote should count equally. The rules-which assigned delegates to each town based not on that days' turnout, but on the number of people who voted for John Baldacci in 2006-created a situation where each voter who attended the caucus in rural Woodville or Gilead got their own delegate (presumably themselves). Bangor only got one delegate for every 10 participants, Portland one for every 18.5, and Camden and Long Island one for 27.

There's no way of knowing if these random-but-significant allocation problems changed the result of Maine's caucus: the Democrats didn't record the actual vote counts.

On the Republican side, democracy was intentionally subverted: under the Maine party's rules, delegates aren't bound to observe the presidential caucus results at all, which means rank-and-file Republicans have no formal role in the decision. "There are many people who feel, in regards to presidential preference, that they don't have a voice-and, essentially, they don't," the party's executive director at the time, Julie Ann O'Brien, said. "After the dust has settled, I think there should be a discussion within and between the two parties as to whether we should go back to primaries."

Well, guess what? The parties don't plan to change a thing.

Maine Republicans will approve the rules for the 2012 presidential cycle at their convention May 7. The proposed rules, drawn up by the party's rules committee, intentionally leave delegates free to ignore the will of caucus voters.

"The rules as currently proposed do not call for the binding of delegates at the state or national convention," says rules committee head Art Pickard. "I brought it up and it received no significant support. It was the typical lead balloon."

Pickard said that binding delegates to the candidate voters preferred was undesirable because if that candidate had withdrawn or was unlikely to win "we would be wasting our votes" at the national convention. When asked if other solutions like instant run-off voting had been contemplated he refused to comment and referred all questions to state party Chairman Charlie Webster.

Mr. Webster did not respond to interview requests, nor did the Republicans' highest ranking elected official at the State House, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, of Perry.

A source familiar with the process said the committee's proposal could be modified by convention attendees if they introduced an amendment at the beginning of the meeting, but that this was unlikely to happen because of a lack of awareness of the issue.

Rob Ritchie of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C., says it's a common Republican practice to not bind delegates to particular candidates. "It's consistent with the Republican goal of getting to a winner quickly and rallying around that person," he says. "Having delegates bound to a candidate that may have already dropped out is more of a Democratic thing, as they seem to have a greater belief that those viewpoints should be voiced and expressed."

On the Democratic side, the arbitrary apportionment of Maine delegates has not been addressed to date, according to former party executive director Arden Manning, but party rules do not require that the rules for the 2012 caucuses be passed at this year's convention May 21-22. "In a way, the debate here is exactly the same as the one over whether we should have a popular vote instead of an electoral college," he said, noting that rural communities get a delegate if just one person turns up. "It gives small towns more power and helps us chose a candidate that will perform well in rural areas as well as urban ones."

Manning also said there had been no discussions about switching from a caucus to a primary, a move which would require legislative approval and a state budget allocation. "It's a cost issue and a tradition issue," he said. Like his Republican counterpart, Democratic Party chairman John Knuston did not respond to interview requests.

I submit that if the parties wanted to, they could greatly democratize their caucuses by simply changing their rules to require that elected delegates to their national conventions be assigned to presidential candidates in direct proportion to the total votes they received at caucus meetings statewide. The parties could select delegates to the state convention under any formula they wished, but those delegates wouldn't have any bearing on the selection of national delegates. (This is similar to what occurs at conventions in states that have presidential primaries.)

But that sort of solution is unlikely to be adopted, according to Sandy Miesel, director of Colby College's Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs. "I don't think it's enough of a concern to anybody to be likely to happen," he says. "I don't think there's any state caucus system where the unit of analysis is larger than the county and is conducted on a one person, one vote basis."

Alexander Hamilton would be pleased.

Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist and author of three books including The Lobster Coast.

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