Jan 07 2008
the entire program
GUEST: Rob Richie, Executive director of FairVote
If you’ve been following the election news from Iowa last week into New Hampshire and beyond this week, you may be wondering just how this complicated American system of electing presidents works, from caucuses to primary elections, party conventions and the electoral college. On Uprising, in addition to the news about the election, we’ll be taking an in-depth look this year at the mechanics of elections and alternatives to them. Today we’ll take a look at the complicated process of voting for presidential nominees in the various caucuses and primaries scheduled to happen in the next few months. In fact many states are holding their primary election events earlier in 2008 than in previous years. On February 5th, which is being termed “Super-Duper Tuesday,” more than 20 states will vote. Nominees will likely emerge after that date, leading to the daunting prospect of a nine-month general election campaign.
One editorialist in the San Francisco Chronicle commented on the current nomination process: “It’s too fast, too expensive and each election cycle is accelerating the absurdity. Plus, Iowa and New Hampshire, two idiosyncratic early-voting powerhouses that barely reflect the rest of the country, play an outsized role in this electoral Survivor.”
S.K.: Why did Iowa have a caucus and why is New Hampshire having a primary election? What’s the difference between the two?
R.R.: Well, some might say that, you know, God has mandated that New Hampshire must have the first primary in the country. Of course, that’s not true, and it’s just that New Hampshire has claimed that right to have the first primary and they defend that very vigorously, so if anyone tries to move a primary ahead of New Hampshire, they’ll move their primary farther earlier so they’re always first. Iowa, by being a caucus, has been able to slip by New Hampshire, set up it’s own tradition – I’m sure New Hampshire at this point regrets that because Iowa will get more attention this year or has gotten more than New Hampshire will have gotten which is voting just on Tuesday – so, by defining it differently. And the caucus is, you know, something that the state doesn’t do, finance the voting process; the parties do it themselves and you gather in a different kind of way. In Iowa, of course, you gather in person and at a particular time in the evening and you gotta be there or your vote doesn’t count. That, of course, disenfranchises a lot of people but, you know, has been immensely important in our politics.
S.K.: Now, where the caucuses are concerned, the voting itself happens in a slightly different way. Is that right?
R.R.: That’s right. And the two parties do it differently. These are just the major parties that are doing these caucuses. The Republicans treat it as a straw poll. So, you get there at the 6:30 to 7:00 hour and then, at 7:00, you cast your vote and that’s your vote and that’s the tally that we saw. So, when, you know, Huckabee got 34% and Romney got 25% and so on, that was the actual straw vote of each individual Republican voter who came to their caucus. More than twice as many people went to Democratic caucuses, and that alone is pretty interesting, but they have a more involved process where they gather, then they, first, divide by candidates into different parts of the room – they physically go to different parts of the room. They tally the results and, unfortunately, we never know what that first tally is and that’s something that we should know and they actually have the number but they just don’t tell us. And then what they do is, they say okay – does any candidate not have at least 15% of the vote in this particular caucus, in this particular meeting? And any candidate who doesn’t have that support is deemed non-viable, and so they can’t win any delegates. And then, supporters of that candidate can either try to woo people to come over and join them – like ‘oh, we’re only three short, come on over and you can help Dennis Kucinich get a vote’ or something…
S.K.: And that happens on the ground, in the room?
R.R.: On the ground, in the room. There are actually people making pitches for their candidate. It is a sort of small Democratic process in an interesting way. But, if they can’t get 15%, then those voters can move to their second choice, just like instant runoff voting, really. It’s like moving on to your second choice and so they can pick, you know, the viable candidate that they like best, if they want to, or they can just go home. And so, when we saw the final results, and it was essentially, on the Democratic side, Edwards, Clinton and Barack Obama winning almost all the delegates, that was a reflection of the fact that they were the ones that consistently got over 15% and Joe Biden and Bill Richardson and Dennis Kucinich and others who were below 15% seemed like they didn’t get anything and partly that’s because their supporters typically went on to their second choice, which was good for their supporters – it’s kind of an instant runoff dynamic, you know, you’re not splitting your vote and wasting it – but, on the other hand, it would have been nice to know what those first numbers were so we could get a fair reflection of what people really wanted when they first went in the room.
S.K.: Now, so, you have to be registered with the party in order to even participate in all of these events, these pre-nomination events, but what about all of the independent voters who will probably, likely determine the next President of the U.S.?
R.R.: Well, in Iowa, they now have election day registration. That was the first state to pass EDR – election day registration – in quite some time, so actually people were able to register on the spot as a member of that party. That’s my understanding, at least, that they did have to register within the party…
S.K.: And did that, do you think, contribute to the unprecedented participation in Iowa last week?
R.R.: It might have. Certainly if you get excited and you want to participate, you know, then you’re not blocked by not having registered a month before the vote or something which is something that, you know, is a troubling part of most of our elections. And then in New Hampshire, they let Independents vote in the primary. And that’s actually the subtext of what’s going on right now – there’s a big struggle essentially between McCain and Obama because both of them get a disproportionate share of the same set of independent voters and if more of them go vote on the Democratic side, that will help Mitt Romney in his struggle to beat McCain, but if more of them go to McCain, that’ll help Clinton try to defeat Obama. And, so it’s an interesting part of the New Hampshire process that the Independents can choose when they go in, which ballot to take. In most states, coming forward, or at least a number of states, you have to be registered within that party. You don’t have Election Day registration. And it is kind of a more streamlined party-only kind of process in a lot of the votes coming up. And we’ll have a few more votes in the next two or three weeks and then, obviously, as you said, that Super Tuesday kind of “Tsunami Tuesday” on February 5th, which is a sort of de facto national primary and it’ll be interesting to see what happens but that’ll be nine months before the general election and then we can just sit around and watch the candidates focus on only a handful of states and kind of ignore the rest of us because of the system of electoral college we have right now and maybe see if a Michael Bloomberg or Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney or other kinds of candidates jump in. We actually could have a kind of interesting multiple choice vote this November in the presidential race but not have a system the accommodates that well.
S.K.: Well, I do want to get to that in a moment, but what determines the way in which each state has its either primary election or caucus? Is it the party delegates in the state itself or is it the central party committee? Where do all of these different rules come from?
R.R.: Well, most of them are by the party themselves.
S.K.: Centrally or state by state?
R.R.: Yes, the state party. So, the state party can decide whether to have a caucus or a primary and there was, in fact, a big debate in Michigan to say supporters of John Edwards wanting a caucus – that they feel they can get more committed people to a caucus, they don’t have as much money as Clinton and Obama and Clinton, particularly, pushing for a primary because she thought that would be better. Then they ultimately, but this is where the national party stepped in, they said Michigan, by trying to move its primary into January, was violating the agreement that had been done about the flow of primaries and then everyone else having to wait until February 5th as the earliest to vote. So, they’ve actually said, no, that primary doesn’t count and we won’t seek the delegates. And that’s going to actually be a little battle to see if they ultimately seek delegates from Michigan and Florida, which both moved into January. And the Democrats also have a party rule requiring proportional representation in every nomination contest with that 15% viability threshold. So, in any contest in the Democratic side, if you get at least 15% support, then you should be winning delegates. On the Republican side, they leave that to the states and actually most states have moved to winner-take-all, which means that if you have this fractured field on the Republican side, which right now they still do, they could have a candidate, you know, win with 22% or something in Florida or some of these big states and get all those states convention delegates and it could lead to some pretty unrepresentative results so that’s left to the party by the Republican side. So, the national parties have the power though to establish a rational system and we have a whole lot of information on fixtheprimaries.com about what would work better than the current system – not always having heavily white, same states of Iowa and New Hampshire always vote first – but, you know, shift that around and different processes. We particularly like a plan called the America Plan, which the Young Democrats of America and California Democrats have endorsed that is a graduated primary that starts with a few states then gets bigger and bigger with breaks in the voting process to allow us to kind of rethink and make sure that it’s going well.
S.K.: Well, on that note of who votes first and, as you mentioned, New Hampshire has been protecting its first place in the primary elections for quite some time now and late last year there was all of this struggle between states to try to become the first state or become closer, hold their primaries closer and closer to the beginning of the year – the entire process has shifted earlier. But, how different do you think party nominations and party nominees would be if, say, a state like California had its primary election first or a state like New York, for example – some of the more liberal states had their primaries first, would we see those? Because the results of one poll affects the results of subsequent polls and then it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
R.R.: Right. Polling is a (unintelligible) in our politics and it really contributes to, if you have enough money to get or you start off with a lot of name recognition, like Hillary Clinton was Bill Clinton’s wife, you know, everyone knew who Hillary Clinton was and if you don’t have much money to get your name out, it’s pretty tough for someone to tell a pollster that you support that person over Hillary Clinton, and then when people look at the polls and say oh someone’s really ahead, there is this sort of front runner effect, people tend to rally around front runners and to sort of discount the chances of someone who isn’t polling well.
S.K.: And we’ve seen that happen so obviously in New Hampshire based on Barack Obama’s win in Iowa.
R.R.: Right. Absolutely.
S.K.: He was behind Hillary Clinton in the polls going into Iowa and is now double-digit numbers ahead.
R.R.: Yeah. Yeah. It’s going to be very interesting. By the way, that struggle over independence makes it still a wild card over what’s really going to happen. But the thing – I like the idea of a whole different mix of states generally having a chance to be first but I also want us to look toward ways we could essentially have almost every state have a meaningful contest and that’s where there’s different ideas out there that might work but the one value of starting with relatively small states, and I would think sort of states of 8 congressional districts or less, is that if you’re say on the Republican side of Mike Huckabee, who really didn’t have very much money, but everyone was channeled into one state, Iowa, and he could fight it out there, make his case and, even with the amount of money he had, you know, get to a point where he was ahead, that if you suddenly were trying to do that in a big state like California, the money makes it a lot tougher to break through and it also, I don’t know, would kind of freeze things into the patterns that the money has set up.
S.K.: So, you support the idea of the smaller states going at it first?
R.R.: Right. But then, having a process – and why the California Democratic Party has supported the American plan is it allows small states to go first but still makes big states very likely to play decisive major roles before a lot of candidates have dropped out. And, in fact, even create an opportunity for a new candidate to get in right now. Like, let’s say we had a result that, and the Republicans in some ways have these results where Republicans clearly don’t know who they really like yet and, let’s say, Newt Gingrich or someone else wanted to get in, there’s no way they would have time to get in before February 5th but if you had a process where things were stretched out over time and also I like what could happen in presidential primaries. You get a little window into the fact that we’ve got a lot of different views in this country. You’ve got a Ron Paul kind of Republican and a Dennis Kucinich kind of Democrat, you’ve got a lot of different kinds of views and they get debated and we get to hear them, but it intensifies after the voting happens, but that’s just when those folks kind of get dropped out and they don’t get to be in the debates, and if we sort of slowed it down, let people stay in longer, let the debates go on further, I think we’d have a further kind of deeper discussion about where to go as a country before we finally selected nominees and someone could jump in like an Al Gore or a Newt Gingrich without having to have made that decision, you know, 20 months before the election.
S.K.: So, stretching the primary election part of the process much longer than the general election, where it then becomes this horserace between a small handful of candidates?
R.R.: Yeah, which is what it used to be kind of in the 1984 time or in the sixties, ’68, when Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy had this sort of final big vote in June in California which was really important and of course now that’ll be all over in early February but that had started with an early vote in New Hampshire where McCarthy scared Lyndon Johnson. And then Kennedy got in. There was a whole flow possible because of a slower schedule and a longer debate within the party and right now it’s all so, you know, compressed when they finally start voting. And, basically it will almost certainly be over by February 5th. The pundits are going to try to tell us it’s over, like, on Tuesday, like, if Barack Obama wins on Tuesday, oh, it’s all over! Oh, come on, 48 states have to vote, like relax. But I think we can institutionalize making sure that we have a fuller discussion.
S.K.: Well, Rob Richie, you mentioned the American Plan. Where can listeners find out more about that? Maybe we can have you on in the future to talk specifically about that?
R.R.: Sure. And, we should, by the way, keep an eye on – the Republicans have a big meeting on January 16th – their rules committee, national rules committee will be debating 8 different plans and we’ll see what they recommend, but they’re going to recommend something different. But if people go to fixtheprimaries.com – that’s a website we’ve set up with a lot of information about different plans – there’s information about from our home page at fairvote.org A Californian named Tom Gengali is the one who came up with the plan that we like and it’s one that’s got a lot of support there. And, of course, this also raises questions about how to accommodate choice in instant runoff voting and I hope people can check that out. It’s been debated a lot in the Bay Area and used in different places but we have stuff on fairvote.org on that, too. Really, the principal of proportional representation, it’s kind of exciting to see the major parties in this setting endorsing the idea that almost everyone that goes to vote in New Hampshire is going to vote for a candidate who wins delegates to go to their convention and that’s kind of a different concept of representation than we usually see in our country.
S.K. Well, Rob, I’m sure we’ll have you back on. I want to thank you so much for joining us today and helping us disentangle some of these intricacies.
Special Thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview