Blogs > Cliopatria > Disenfranchisement

Apr 4, 2008 7:08 am


Voter disenfranchisement has been a theme much on the mind of the Clinton campaign. Campaign manager Maggie Williams recently penned a memo stating, “Hillary Clinton respects those voters [in the states yet to vote] and their right to participate in this historic contest. Their votes, along with all the others, will determine when this contest is at an end. It’s the American way – everybody counts in this country. The last time that we were told we’d better cut the process short or the sky would fall was when the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount in 2000. But Chicken Little was wrong. What was true then is true now: there is nothing to fear – and everything to gain – from hearing from all of the voters.” Meanwhile, in an interview with a Montana TV station, Hillary Clinton asserted, “A lot of Senator Obama’s supporters want to end this race because they don't want people to keep voting. That's just the opposite of what I believe. We want people to vote. I want the people of Montana to vote, don’t you?”

These arguments, of course, aren't terribly logical. Even if Senator Clinton were to end her campaign tomorrow, the Montana Democratic primary would still occur on June 3, her name would still be on the ballot, and voters could, if they so chose, select her. And by Williams’ apparent definition of disenfranchisement—the lack of an active and closely contested primary campaign—Indiana voters have been disenfranchised in at least the last five Democratic nominating contests, including those of Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

This looseness with a serious charge—voter disenfranchisement—is particularly troubling given that, for the last several weeks, Clinton supporters urged uncommitted superdelegates to base their preferences on a metric that would essentially disenfranchise the Democratic voters of Iowa, Nevada, Washington, and Maine. The Clinton campaign is the first in the history of the modern (post-1968) nominating process to suggest that the popular vote total should be considered as important as the number of pledged delegates won (indeed, to suggest that the popular vote total has any relevance at all in the nominating process). Yesterday, the latest Clinton superdelegates to raise the issue, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine and Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha, stated that Clinton needed to pass Obama in the popular vote total to justify superdelegates backing her at the convention.

The problem with this argument: Iowa, Nevada, Washington, and Maine have caucuses that don’t report the popular vote total (unsurprisingly, since the popular vote total has never been claimed to matter). While Real Clear Politics has produced a popular vote estimate of the final outcome in these four states (Obama by 110,218, for an overall lead of 827,308 votes), neither the Clinton campaign nor the media generally use this figure.

The Maine caucus has none of the problems that the Clinton campaign has regularly attributed to caucuses. Only registered Democrats can participate; those who can’t attend the caucus can vote by absentee. (From Israel, I joined over 4000 Maine Democrats who caucused by absentee in 2008). Maine isn’t a state with a lot of upper-middle class voters or students, the kind of people that Bill Clinton in particular has claimed skew caucus results. And in contrast to caucuses in states like Kansas, Nebraska, or Idaho, the state party leadership, headed by Governor John Baldacci, backed Clinton, not Obama. In a record turnout, Obama nonetheless prevailed, 59 percent to 38 percent. But because the state party records state delegates won, not individual caucus tallies, the votes of Mainers play no role in the Clinton campaign’s popular-vote metric. Governor Baldacci nonetheless remains a Clinton superdelegate.

The situation in Washington state is even more complicated. Since the late 1990s, the state’s nominating process has been mired in litigation. In 2000, the Supreme Court declared the state’s “blanket” primary (in which all candidates appeared on the primary ballot, and the top vote-getters from each party advanced to the general election) unconstitutional. In 2004, state voters passed an initiative to effectively restore the system, which the Supreme Court upheld—but not in time for the presidential primary. So Washington Democrats chose their delegates through a caucus, which Obama overwhelmingly won. (The party also had a non-binding primary, which was marred by disallowed ballots.)

Clinton has three Washington superdelegates—Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and DNC member Ron Sims. (Cantwell has backtracked some from this position, though not because the popular vote total doesn’t count her constituents.)

At least the popular votes of Washington and Maine can be roughly estimated. In Iowa and Nevada, even that’s not possible, because of the nature of multi-candidate caucuses. In many individual Iowa caucuses, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, or Dennis Kucinich failed to reach the 15 percent viability threshold. Their supporters thus switched to Obama, Clinton, or John Edwards. In individual Nevada caucuses, Edwards frequently failed to reach the 15 percent viability threshold; his supporters thus switched to Obama or Clinton. In estimating the popular tally, how should such voters be counted? They can’t be, fairly—which is why the party has never before used the popular vote as a relevant tool in the nominating process.

Even though the votes of their constituents don’t count in the Clinton campaign’s preferred metric, Representatives Leonard Boswell (IA) and Shelley Berkley (NV); and DNC members Sandy Opstvedt (IA), Mike Gronstal (IA), and Dina Titus (NV) remain Clinton superdeleates.

Why do the caucus figures matter? In a recent column, Michael Barone offered a best-case projection for Clinton, suggesting that she could, theoretically, end the primary season with a popular vote advantage. But, given polls published after Barone’s column, Clinton seems far more likely to win Pennsylvania by around 10 points, rather than the 20 points that Barone projected. Adjusting that figure but keeping the rest of Barone’s (very Clinton-friendly) estimates yields a final Clinton popular vote lead of around of around 30,000 votes—less than the estimated Obama margin in the uncounted caucus states.

Unlike their colleagues in Florida and Michigan, the state parties in Washington and Maine followed DNC rules in setting up the timing and mechanism of their caucuses. Unlike party members in Michigan, Washington and Maine Democrats participated in record numbers. Yet, judged by the way that most in the media are reporting the popular vote margin, the votes of Maine and Washington Democrats don’t seem to count.

Somehow, I doubt we’ll be seeing a Maggie Williams memo decrying this disenfranchisement.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Nicholas Norden - 4/6/2008

Stating that the popular vote is a better metric than the pledged delegate total is analagous to saying the 2007-2008 New York Knicks are a better team than the 2007 New England Patriots because they average more points per game. Caucuses are a totally different animal than primaries. All the caucus vote totals COMBINED add up to no more than a million votes.

It's discouraging that the Obama campaign has characterized the popular vote metric as legitimate.

R.R. Hamilton - 4/5/2008

KC, have you seen Michael Barone's latest?

I would be interested to hear what you think of it.

R.R. Hamilton - 4/4/2008

1. "Looseness with a serious charge"? Why that's been the lodestone of Democrat Party politics for at least 35 years. (Contrast to the Repubs, who after watching 100 Clinton-connected moneypersons flee the country one step ahead of the law in 1996 -- and watching the Clinton campaign and DNC "return" zillions of dollars of illegal contributions, did NOT claim that "Clinton stole the election").

2. How are you a Maine resident? Just curious. I applaud your dedication that you actually voted in the caucus from Israel.

3. The fact is that Obama will NOT win enough pledged delegates to win the nomination. Therefore, Clinton should be free to make any argument she wants -- fair or foul -- to swing the super-delegates her way. Making wild charges of "disenfranchisement" (actually more true here than in 2000) are valid arrows in that quiver.

4. I'm from a big state, but I, too, fear for the big population centers gaining too much sway. One idea I would offer: First, increase the size of the House from 435 to 500 members (bear with me on this). Then change the Constitution such that each state would have an Electoral College vote equal to its number of representatives plus TWO-TIMES its number of Senators (e.g., "four"). It would create an EC of 705 voters, with the smallest states (and D.C.) having 5 votes. Based on 2000 census data, a candidate could no longer win with just the 11 largest states; he'd need 13.

Robert KC Johnson - 4/4/2008

I agree. After the DNC decision, though, the one unpredicted development was the IA and NH parties getting together (along the with the then-second tier candidates) to pressure the frontrunning candidates not to campaign in MI and FL.

Looking back, the tactical mistake that Obama (and Edwards) made was not pressing Clinton more on her (logically inconsistent, if she believed, as she said at the time, that the primary didn't count) decision to keep her name on the MI ballot. My sense is that if this issue had just involved FL--with MI allowed to send a wholly uncommitted delegation--there probably would have been a Repub-like 50% solution already imposed.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/4/2008

Your defense of Obama is a strong one, though to some extent that may rest on how consistent the DNC has been in all of this.

Not that consistency can't be a hobgoblin. Even before the year began, I thought the Republican position, allow the primary but dock the offending state half their delegates, made a lot more political sense. When Clinton campaigned in those states, she was betting on the fact that excluding all the Democratic delegates (and primary input) from two states was politically unviable.

She was right about that. Even if she had not campaigned in them, we would still be looking for a quick fix now, and it might not have been any easier to find one.

By the way, Wisconsin is a midsize state that is slipping slowly down the ranks because of a slow population increase. Perhaps for that reason, I agree that small states need a bit of a "boost" in the election process.

But if we become more and more scattered as a people, the natural tendency will be to emphasize the national majority.

Robert KC Johnson - 4/4/2008

On FL/MI: Obama's position, it seems to me, has been consistent--he'd accept the DNC recommendations. That's the position all the candidates took (under pressure, of course, from the IA and NH state parties) in the fall. If Obama had won both primaries, would his campaign be adopting the same position as Hillary's is now? I suspect it would. But Obama has the advantage of being able to reconcile his current political needs with his previous position on process questions.

That strikes me as quite different a position than Clinton is now taking: she's saying the popular vote total is more important/authentic than the delegate total. Setting aside the fact that her campaign was saying something else entirely in January, and that no campaign, to my knowledge, has ever previously made such an argument in the nominating process, it seems to me that a new mantra of "count all the votes" has to, at the very least . . . count all the votes. Instead, her metric simply lops off the Dem voters of four states--states that played by the party's rules. This, of course, is one of the problems with changing the rules midstream.

As a voter in a small state, I admit that I have a parochial interest in opposing the Clinton argument: if the Dems suddenly start basing their nomination on the candidate who leads in the popular vote, whatever small influence Maine currently has in the nominating process will all but vanish.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/4/2008

1. Obama has been less vocal on this lately, but has his campaign really been more consistent on this issue? Hasn't his campaign also chosen its arguments on the Florida/Michigan mess on the basis of self interest and not theoretical consistancy?

2. I think we are in a process where the primary system--indeed the whole system of electing a president--is being reconsidered. The end of the 2000 presidential election and the closeness of this Democratic primary has led a lot of politically active people to learn that different ways of determining the will of the majority can produce different results.

As is the American way, a true reconsideration is not done theoretically but in the throws of partisan political activity. Each "theory" of how to determine the majority is being tested by partisans who tend to judge it by whether it helps them.

As historians, even partisan ones, I think we should take a step back and look at this aspect of the election. I think the path to legitimacy is being redefined, perhaps just a bit, perhaps more profoundly. Either way, an expectation of consistency from the candidates at a time like this seems to me to be a bit, well, ahistorical.