Undemocratic Process?

Some Claim Delegate Selection Can Be Undemocratic—But Not So Fast


Both Democrats and Republicans have been criticized for not being democratic enough in the way they select convention delegates. Let's look at this a little closer.

Montana Republicans made an educated guess last summer that the GOP presidential nominee would be chosen on Super Tuesday, February 5. Since the bill to move the Montana primary election date up to Febru-ary 5, sponsored by Rep. Duane Ankney (R-Colstrip), died in the state Senate last spring, the Republicans felt that to have meaningful involvement in the nominating process, they would have to find another way to move Montana nearer the front of the line.

Having caucuses doesn't require a change in the law as does changing the primary election date. Montana's Republican Party could go it alone, but it would have to privately organize the caucuses across the state, and would have to pay for them out of party funds. It was a big undertaking, one that the party had not planned or budgeted for.

In addition, unlike most states, Montana voters don't register to vote by party. National Republican Party advisors cautioned Montana Republicans to try to find a way of making sure that Republicans would be in control of selecting their own delegates to their national convention. As a result, Montana Republicans devised a plan that allowed all Republican public office holders, and all party officers down to the precinct level, to participate in the caucuses. The total number eligible was 2,739. The number that participated was 1,630, far fewer than the number who vote in Montana's advisory primary election, but four or five times as many as attend the GOP state convention which until now has determined the make-up of the Montana delegation to the party's national convention.

Former Governor Mitt Romney won the Montana Republican caucuses on “Super Tuesday,” but nationally, Senator John McCain prevailed overwhelmingly on that day. Two days later, Romney dropped out and declared his support for McCain. Romney's delegates, including Montana's, added to McCain's total, assuring that McCain would soon be the Republican nominee. Without question, the Montana Republican caucuses gave Montana Republicans, for the first time in memory, a significant voice in the selection of their party's nominee for president. Had they not made the bold and somewhat controversial decision to experiment with caucuses, the Montana Republican presidential primary would be as meaningless as it has always been.

Montana Democrats may have stumbled into unsuspected relevance by choosing, mostly by default, to leave their primary on June 3. Montana is now in the thick of the last-ditch Democratic contest, as evidenced by the planned visit of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Butte and other Montana cities in April.

But now it is the Democratic Party that is being accused by many of its own members of being undemocratic because of the role of the “superdelegates” —those elected and party officials who are automatically given delegate status, and who are free to vote for any candidate they choose at the convention. In Montana's case, 7 of the 24 delegates to the convention in Denver in August will be “superdelegates.”

Many people are upset—even outraged—by the idea that some delegates to the national convention are not required to support the candidate that a majority of that state's people voted for. How can a party with such rules call itself Democratic? Isn't this fundamentally un-American?

No, in fact, this kind of mixed decision-making is about as American as it gets. The nation's Founders understood that, when important decisions with lasting consequences were being made, there was value in viewing the matter from different angles. That's why the U.S. and all but one of its states have bicameral legislatures, for example. It would be much easier and faster to pass legislation if it only had to be approved by one legislative body. But James Madison warned in Federalist Paper No. 62 against “the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.” As former leaders of the Montana House and Senate, we've both been frustrated when the other house failed to see the wisdom of the legislation our favorite house had passed. But we both remain convin-ced that this clumsy, inefficient system produces better results and makes fewer mistakes over the long run.

“Measure twice, saw once” is an ancient maxim and a sound caution. Many of the clumsy, even seemingly undemocratic checks and balances built into our system are a way of ensuring that big decisions will be considered and reconsidered before the final die is cast. The Democratic Party is operating in the best American tradition by giving some wise old heads who have been around the block a time or two a chance to add their perspective to what the passions of the moment may have produced.

It's a healthy sign that the delegate selection process in both parties is being judged against democratic standards. These processes are always evolving, and both Montana parties could certainly improve their procedures, and probably will in future years. But, imperfect as our two party systems may be, they are contributing in important ways to the democratic process.

Bob Brown and Daniel Kemmis are Senior Fellows at the Rocky Mountain West. Brown is a former Repub-lican Secretary of State and President of the Mont. Senate. Kemmis is a former Democratic Mayor of Missoula and Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives.



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