Making The Case For Caucus
By Kevin Rex Heine, Section News
On July 12th, 2011, the Michigan Republican Party State Policy Committee decided in closed session to recommend that the state republican presidential primary should be a "closed" primary, to be held sometime between February 28th and March 6th of 2012. On August 13th, the full MIGOP State Committee will make a decision whether to go with this recommendation or to adopt another process. There are several concerns about this, not the least of which is that there is the widespread opinion among various elements within the party that the process of arriving at this decision has not been as open and transparent as it ought to have been. Toward that end, the Michigan Faith & Freedom Coalition invited state committee members, grassroots activists, and concerned citizens to attend a series of town-hall style forums in order to voice opinions and gather information.
As the person asked to moderate the Kent County forum, I can say that the 2-1/2 hour discussion was very robust, amazingly civil, and quite informative. The strengths and weaknesses of each of the options were discussed in detail, and an opinion poll was taken at the end. Given how overwhelming the result of that poll was, I think that this is something that should be passed along to as many decision-makers within the MIGOP as possible, by any means necessary. I'll warn the reader fairly that what follows is a tad lengthy and may require more two or three read-throughs in order to understand it all; but this is important, and it's absolutely critical that we understand everything that is involved in not only the method of conducting the primary, but also the process by which that decision is made.
We should start off by discussing a few key details that must be considered regardless of what process is implemented by the full state committee:
From what I have been told, two e-mails went out to MIGOP members in the wake of the July 12th unanimous recommendation by the MIGOP State Policy Committee to conduct a closed presidential primary. One of the e-mails was sent out by Mike Cox, the current chair of the MIGOP State Policy Committee. (Saul Anuzis, the current MIGOP State Committeeman, posted on his blog the verbatim contents of both e-mails. He also mentions the Michigan presidential primary in blog posts on June 26th, July 3rd, July 10th, and July 17th.) However, I have spoken at length with a few people who were intimately involved in the process that settled on the 2008 primary, and they consider the writings of Mr. Cox and Mr. Anuzis to be either "disingenuously misleading," or "revisionist history" (those quote marks are there for a reason).
During the spring and summer of 2007, when both of the state's parties were considering moving their primary up to an earlier-than-normal date, the MIGOP Presidential Selection Task Force (chaired by Dave Dishaw, reporting to the State Policy Committee) held a series of eight public policy forums throughout Michigan, geographically spaced out enough that anyone who wanted to attend one had an opportunity to do so. This information-gathering (which had actually begun in the summer of 2005) led to high-level inter-party talks between Saul Anuzis and Mark Brewer. Of concern was the fact that both parties were expecting wide-open and heavily-contested primaries, and both wanted to minimize cross-contamination. Because voters in Michigan don't register their party affiliation, and thus the truth that there is no such thing as a closed primary in Michigan, the logical choice was to hold the presidential primaries on the same day.
All of this was agreed to before the legislature was approached in August, 2007, to sponsor legislation calling for a special January 15th, 2008 election for the purpose of conducting a statewide presidential primary and appropriating the necessary funds for that purpose. A special election had to be called because in Michigan, under Michigan Election Law (specifically MCL 168.641), we have consolidated regular election dates. If it isn't the proper Tuesday of February, May, August, or November, then the appropriate legislative authority has to not only appropriate the funds to conduct the election, but also authorize the conduct of the election in the first place.
Yes, Obama, Biden, Richardson, and Edwards all pulled out of the Michigan Primary . . . after the legislation establishing the January date was a done deal (including being signed into law by then-Governor Granholm). However, Mark Brewer still went public in December of 2007, urging Michigan Democrats to attend the primary in their precinct, and encouraging those who wanted to vote for Obama to mark their ballots "undecided."
Primary: Open or "closed," it's a dumb idea
As I said previously, there is no such thing as a "closed" primary in Michigan. A truly closed primary means that voters have to register their party affiliation (if they have one) no later than a certain amount of days before the partisan primary election, and that's the voter's party-of-record until the next partisan registration deadline comes due. We don't do that here in Michigan, that's not how our laws work. The only thing "closed" about our partisan primaries is that you can only vote on one side of the ballot (the left or the right) on primary day. So, yeah, anyone who spouts the line about "closed" primaries is blowing so much smoke; and anyone who truly believes that Michigan's primaries are closed is buying into the lie that "straight ticket primary" means the same thing as "closed primary."
(As a totally funny sidebar, in the run-up to the August 2010 primary my then-fiancée, Christie, had been campaigning hard in her neighborhood because she was in a four-way race for Republican Precinct Delegate. On the day of the primary, her cell phone was ringing off the chain because some of her neighbors wanted to know how they should vote on the republican side of the ticket. Apparently, they had attempted to otherwise vote on the democrat side of the ballot, but invalidated their ballots by voting for her "down ticket." Evidently, they were so interested in voting for her that they abandoned participation in the Democrat Primary, and sought guidance from her as to how to vote in the other contests in the Republican Primary.)
Mike Cox, in his letter to the MIGOP state committee, begins his defense of a "closed" primary by essentially contending that primaries are a good idea for the same reason that the 17th Amendment is a good idea (which, I suspect, may cost him any residual tea party support that he still enjoys). He then goes on to cite the order-of-finish (Romney, McCain, Huckabee, Paul, Thompson, and Guiliani) as "evidence" that there was no democrat crossover in a primary where there was no actual contest on the democrat side of the ballot. Yet Bill Bigler, in his rebuttal, effectively makes the argument that the 2008 order-of-finish very much reflects democrat governance priorities.
Additionally, Bigler also cites that, while the 2008 results may be inconclusive as to proof of crossover-contamination, primaries from previous years are not so ambiguous. In the 2000 republican primary, John McCain's campaign was badly organized and inadequately funded, yet McCain still managed to beat the amply funded and organized-like-a-machine George W. Bush campaign. According to Bigler, there is evidence enough that the MDP engineered a crossover for the sole purpose of embarrassing then-Governor John Engler (who had endorsed Bush's campaign). Additionally, there is some evidence that republican operatives engineered crossovers into the democrat primaries in 1972 and 1988, resulting in George Wallace and Jesse Jackson (respectively) winning the Michigan votes in those years.
The usual point behind deliberate crossover contamination of a primary isn't to support a "plant" within the opposition's primary, but rather to engage in a coordinated sabotage effort to nominate either (a) the candidate on the opposition's roster who best reflects the political values of one's own party, or (b) the candidate on the opposition's roster who will be easiest to beat in the general election. Now let's think about this; of the dozen credible candidates currently filed with the FEC as either officially running or exploring a republican presidential bid, which ones benefit from a democrat crossover (regardless of whether that crossover is actually coordinated or just simply mass-invited)? In other words, which members of the 2012 republican presidential candidates' gallery is either (a) viewed as being truly representative of democrat political values or (b) viewed as being easiest for Obama to beat in November?
Mike Cox also makes the assertion that the party can then use the names of the voters who vote in the republican primary (which is public record) to build voter contact lists that can then be used in every race from very local all the way up to statewide federal. However, I have worked with Voter Vault in several elections, and I can attest to Bill Bigler's rebuttal that Voter Vault is a "garbage in, garbage out" system; candidates who do use this database to build lists almost never report back whatever updates they may develop during their campaigns. So what if we get 900,000 new or updated names of voters who participate in the republican primary; without party-specific voter registration, all of these names have to be hand-verified (presumably by the precinct delegates) . . . and that is a ton of unnecessary extra work.
Mike Cox also seems to make light of concerns about what Mark Brewer (MDP Chairman) might say about MIGOP conducting a primary. Well, I wouldn't be so quick to do that. Brewer would be saying the same thing that every honest republican who isn't experiencing a case of cranial-rectal inversionism is already saying: "Since the Republican Party claims to be the party of fiscal responsibility and limited government, how do they then justify spending ten million dollars of taxpayer money on a party-specific special election when the Democrat Party is having a privately-funded caucus?" I am curious as to what a reasonable counter-argument to this might be, because I don't think that ignoring this argument is wise.
One more thing on this subject: I've had some conversations in the past year or so with some people who have forgotten more than I will ever learn about how to combat voter fraud. A common concept that they all seemed to mention is the "ten percent of ten percent" rule. By this they mean that throwing an election doesn't require tampering with every precinct, or even a majority of them; ten percent of all the precincts voting in the election are enough. Worse, tampering with the outcome in those precincts only requires offsetting-and-overriding only ten percent of the total votes cast in the targeted precincts.
And all I'm saying is that, since there is no such thing as a truly closed primary in Michigan, and that the Michigan Democrat Party will have an incentive to tinker with the outcome, the "ten percent of ten percent" rule is something that those still supporting the primary option might want to seriously consider. If the objective is to keep the democrats out of the republican nomination process, then in my opinion a primary is most certainly not the best answer.
Nominating Convention: Backroom deals and bitter aftermath
Now, on the flip side of that coin, if the desired result is to encourage broad-based voter participation, then a straight-to-convention plan is most definitely not the way to go. (The simultaneous county convention I view as a separate idea, but I'll get to that.) With very few exceptions, no one that I know or know of actually favors this idea. Given the total fiasco of the state convention back in August of 2010, opting for a presidential nominating convention is a disaster waiting for an excuse to happen.
And the stakes at this convention would be higher. Very big money would be riding on swinging the votes of an absolute majority of the 2,000 + convention delegates, and the angling to ensure the outcome would start right about the time that the calls to the county nominating conventions were mailed out. Make no mistake, it would not be the least bit surprising for the campaign teams of several candidates make the "behind the curtain" decision to make damn sure that a particularly disliked candidate (perhaps even the frontrunner) would not win, and never you mind who actually does win, or make a deal to arrange so that a candidate who has no chance of winning the national nomination would win (just to use someone else's wheaties as a urinal). Hell, with only 200 votes to offset-and-override, there is no end to the manipulation that could conceivably take place, and not just on the convention floor.
Sure, a nominating convention would just about guarantee that there would be no democrat tampering with the outcome, but the pendulum of risk swings too far in the direction of internal manipulation. In comparison to how quickly this could get unbelievably ugly (to the point that there would be no removing the perception of "establishment selection override"), I don't think it's a stretch to say that the 1998 Smeitanka-Romney floor fight would look like a schoolyard dust-up by comparison . . . and I'm not sure that even a roll call motion would make a difference.
Simultaneous County Conventions: Maybe a usable concept, maybe not
At the Kent County and Oakland County forums, this option was the backup choice of the audience in attendance. (There wasn't a backup choice at the Grand Traverse County forum.) The voting would be done by the precinct delegates of the county in convention assembled.
On paper, this sounds like a really good middle-ground idea. Because it's only the precinct delegates, the potential for democrat contamination is minimized; because it's decentralized, the potential for establishment manipulation is also minimized. Precinct delegates would be able to poll their neighborhoods and get a feel for how the voters want the vote cast, and carry those wishes to the county convention (thus ensuring broad-based voter participation through the neighborhoods' duly elected representatives).
The respective county party committees only have to rent out one building; said building needing one larger room for the everyone-in-attendance portions of the convention and smaller separate rooms for the county district caucuses. After the opening protocols and candidate-support speeches, the delegates break out and caucus by their county commission districts; the vote jockeying would continue until one of the candidates has an absolute majority of the delegate votes in the district.
Now, here's the problem: Not every available precinct delegate slot in this state is currently filled with a duly elected republican delegate. Of those that are filled, a good many of the delegates are more interested in the show-and-glow of the title than they are in actually doing the work associated with the elected office.
Let me use my hometown as an example. In my county commission district (which encompasses seven precincts in my city and six precincts in the neighboring city) there are two precinct delegate slots available per precinct. Of those 26 available slots, 12 are currently filled. The remaining eleven precincts in my hometown (which wholly compose an adjacent county commission district) provide an additional 22 available precinct delegate slots, of which 16 are filled. 20 "permanent vacancies" out of 48 openings available (~ 42%) is a decent enough number, though I'd prefer one much closer to zero, and it would be great if all 28 of those duly elected delegates would just show the hell up at convention.
However, of the 12 current precinct delegates in my county commission district, I can't guarantee that any more than 7 would show up at a county convention. In the other district in my hometown, I think that number is 9 of 16 (if that). So, on a normal county convention turnout, my hometown's representation at a convention isn't going to exceed 33 percent (16 present out of 48 available). I don't know how that plays out as a statewide ratio, and I certainly don't think that the "unit rule" can be reliably applied, but I don't view a percentage that low as desirable.
Now, there may or may not be a way to cover those gaps in time for the convention (the county chairs are in a better position than I to speak to that). But if there isn't a way to fill those gaps, and if the county chairs aren't comfortable that the republican voters in their county would be adequately represented, then maybe simultaneous county conventions ought not be the way to go here.
Precinct-By-Precinct Caucus: Good idea, but some implementation issues
That leaves us with only the caucus method of deciding Michigan's presidential nomination to consider. There are two basic methods of conducting a caucus vote, either a "firehouse" caucus or a "precinct-by-precinct" caucus. (And let me here go on the record that a caucus method, regardless of which of the two is chosen, was the overwhelmingly popular choice of the audience at all three of the public policy forums.)
The Michigan Caucus for Victory 2012 has put together what looks to be a very solid plan (at least on paper) for how a precinct-by-precinct caucus plan might be implemented. It seems to be fairly similar to how the caucuses are conducted in Iowa and Nevada (among other states), and their Vimeo site has three videos that provide some additional details as to how such a plan would work and the benefits that it would provide. The question, of course, is whether or not such a system could be feasibly implemented in the time that we have available to get this thing up and running. The Operations Manual and Proof of Concept lays out a fairly ambitious sample timetable, with some additional details provided on subsequent pages.
Mike Cox, in his letter, attempts to draw a parallel between this proposed caucus arrangement and the only other time that Michigan used a caucus, that being 1988. However, the structural inadequacy arguments that Mr. Cox raises are addressed and rebutted in the Misconceptions and Opposition Discussion Forum on the Michigan Caucus for Victory 2012 forum page.
Before I go on, let me point out the irony in one of Mr. Cox's arguments: He challenges the ability of this caucus system to effectively screen out the democrats from crossing over into a republican event. Now, keep in mind that this is the same man who touts the ability of the "closed" primary - which has zero protections against non-republican participation - to keep the democrats out. As to his concern about absentee voters, my response is to find out how they do it in Iowa or Nevada (or some other well-known caucus state) and see if that'll work here in Michigan.
Now, having said that, let me venture into an area of concern raised by both Mike Cox and Bill Bigler with respect to the organization and infrastructure of the precinct-by-precinct proposal. A key element of this proposal is that it assumes that we can assemble a statewide precinct-by-precinct network of committed volunteers between now and the end of February 2012. Given that the current statewide network of precinct delegates resembles a block of shotgunned swiss cheese, I don't think that filling all the gaps with the necessarily committed people is going to happen that quickly. Names filling in slots on a roster aren't going to cut it, either, not if this plan is going to work as it's written.
So, yeah, my thinking on the precinct-by-precinct caucus proposal is that it's a great idea on paper, but given where we're at right now, it's probably not the best choice. However, there is another caucus plan available, and I think that it'll work better.
County-By-County "Firehouse Caucus": A better caucus plan
As I said in the previous section, the overwhelmingly popular choice of all three public policy forums heavily favored a caucus method of some sort. However, as I've already explained, the precinct-by-precinct plan probably isn't going to work exactly as written. So, I'd like to present for consideration a variant of the "firehouse caucus" plan.
The point of this caucus plan is that all of the primary voters in the county would go to a single (perhaps central) location in the county and cast their primary votes there. At the end of the day, the ballots would be tabulated and reported to the appropriate congressional district leadership team, who would then compile all of the results from each reporting county and determine the winner within that district. The results would also be reported to the state headquarters, so that the statewide vote totals can be compiled, and the at-large delegates can be awarded accordingly.
Some of the several county parties have their own headquarters (whether owned or leased), and where this is true those buildings could be used as the county caucus point; otherwise, whatever location arrangements the county party in question uses to hold its regular executive committee meetings might be modified to work for this purpose. Regardless of how the location is arranged, each county party executive committee should be able to come up with enough volunteers internally to staff their caucus point. Voting booths should be readily available from (or via) the County Elections Clerk; and, of course, one voting machine per congressional district will have to be set up (which, for most counties, will be only one).
And yes, I suspect that the clerks in question will insist on having one of their paid staff members present to supervise the operation of the machines (given that these are very expensive machines, I don't blame them). However, if the staff members in question are salaried, and they probably will be, then there won't be any extra expense incurred for them working on a caucus event. As to any need for additional poll workers, well the party seems to be able to run its convention elections just fine without any need for government oversight, so this should be no different.
Absentee ballots (including military ballots) could be handled similarly to how they'd be handled at any other election. Yes, each candidate's campaign should have the opportunity to have poll watchers/challengers present at each county's polling location, as well as at each congressional district leadership meeting location and also at state party headquarters. (This would be a really useful opportunity to train poll challengers for the 2012 November general election.) Any expenses associated with the poll watchers should be borne by the candidates' campaigns.
Assuming that an instant-runoff option is allowed within the rules (I think that there are some states that do this, but specifics escape me at the moment), and assuming that there are no more than 12 candidates participating, then a standard three-column ballot should provide for at least six-rounds of instant-runoff ranking on one side of a single sheet of paper. I'm pretty sure that there's at least one computer programmer out there somewhere who could set it up so that the optical scans are fed directly into an appropriate tabulating algorithm that could conduct the runoff rounds immediately after the final votes are cast and someone presses the "go" button (assuming that the technology isn't already on-the-shelf available).
And yes, because I know someone's going to raise the question, I think that we can set up some means to satisfy the democrat conspiracy theorists that might desire to accuse us of tampering with the scanners and boxes that we check out from the elections clerks.
I also think that the pre-registration method that Adam deAngeli suggests in his proof of concept (see page 5 of that document) for the other caucus method would work well as a deterrent against all but the truly hard-core crossover infiltrators, and could be easily incorporated into this process. The essence of this process is that prospective primary voters will register online - a secure page at the MIGOP website could be set up for this purpose - and the voter's registration information will be checked against the voter file. Assuming that the prospective voter is properly registered where he claims he is, a registration receipt is promptly issued (either printable immediately or e-mail transmittable, or both) which will serve as the voter's "proof of registration" in the event of questions or disputes. The proof of registration receipt will contain a voter ID number (which could just as easily be identical to the voter's driver's license/state-issued ID number) and an encrypted key code derived from the voter ID number and voter file information.
A county-by-county "firehouse caucus" would provide two benefits to the state party that will be critical to defeating Barack Obama in 2012: The first is that this particular method will provide us with a more reliable database input of known "hardcore" republican voters; the second is that this method will demonstrate which candidates have effective county-by-county ground games. (Say what you want to about Barack Obama's personal charisma, the reason that he was able to effectively engage so many young and new voters was chiefly due to his grassroots organization network.) Conducting it on a Saturday in March might help to maximize turnout.
For whatever my opinion may be worth, having considered all five of the available options for determining Michigan's presidential nomination, I really think that this is the one that the Michigan Republican State Committee ought to select.
Financial Questions and Working Against The Clock
I've decided to address the financial aspect of anything that isn't a primary as a separate issue, because this question impacts all four of the non-primary options in the same way, regardless of which is chosen.
I don't know how the SCOTUS Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), might impact these financial considerations, but as I understand it, there are still limits as to how much party committees and individuals (and perhaps even PACs) are allowed to spend on federal election campaigns. With respect to state and county party committees, this becomes something of a bugger because their 2012 federal election campaign budget (which has a unified bottom line subject to cap) has to be split at least three ways. In other words, "bang for the buck" is going to be critical when it comes to non-primary options. This is yet another reason to rule out either convention method as viable options for determining Michigan's presidential nomination; a centralized nominating convention will blow a $1.0 to $2.5 million hole in MIGOP's federal election spending cap, and simultaneous county conventions will do similar damage to each county's federal spending cap.
However, depending upon how a caucus method is implemented, I think that much of the costs can be attributed to the party's administrative budget (which doesn't impact the federal election spending cap). Of course, I could be wrong, and that's something for the bean counters to figure out anyway.
As I see it, no matter what we do, someone's going to say that we're getting it wrong financially. If we opt for a special primary, then we're tapping the treasury of a state that's still recovering from the financial mismanagement of the previous gubernatorial administration and may not have the funds to spare for such a primary. If we opt for a convention or a caucus, then we put a dent in the party's spending cap for all three levels of federal elections next year, the only questions being as to what degree and as to who foots the bill.
To be perfectly honest with you, given everything that's involved in a decision as important as this (between policies, rules, and finances), the MIGOP leadership probably should have begun working on this issue the Monday after the state convention back in January instead of waiting until almost the last possible day to make a decision as to how to proceed. That, of course, assumes that they weren't actually doing so, and I don't know that for a fact. All I'm doing is comparing the process leading up to the 2008 presidential primary and the process involved in reaching the decision that will be made this Saturday . . . and I'm pointing out that I see a contrast that ought to be considered for what it is.
Closing Arguments and Decision Dilemma
Before concluding, let me briefly review the key points of my arguments thus far:
The advantages of special primary election:
But I'm not going to do anything that any other conservative in this state can't do. I'm going to contact a few people in the Michigan Republican Party, starting with my congressional district representation to the State Committee, and then expanding that reach through the party's 39-page directory to everyone who might be willing to listen to an opinion other than what the Policy Committee has provided.
All I'm asking is for others to do the same.
In my opinion, it comes down to this: How badly do we want to keep the democrats out of our presidential nomination process?
Making The Case For Caucus | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden)
Making The Case For Caucus | 8 comments (8 topical, 0 hidden)
Related Links+ a series of town-hall style forums
+ Kent County forum
+ posted on his blog
+ June 26th
+ July 3rd
+ July 10th
+ July 17th
+ Michigan Election Law
+ MCL 168.641
+ all pulled out of the Michigan Primary
+ in his rebuttal
+ dozen credible candidates
+ Michigan Caucus for Victory 2012
+ very solid plan
+ three videos
+ Operations Manual and Proof of Concept
+ Misconcept ions and Opposition Discussion Forum
+ proof of concept
+ Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
+ 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010)
+ 39-page directory
+ Also by Kevin Rex Heine