Date registered: Apr 2004
Location: The BlueGrass State
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If you’re reading this, you’re probably looking for a little more information about the Michigan Presidential Primary Election on January 15th, 2008. In the years that Publius has been working to help voters get non-partisan information about elections we have never encountered an election like this.
This is a stupid and confusing election.
It is a stupid election at a time when so many Michigan voters need and want to participate in determining the direction of the country. When the stakes are high for this state, the country, and the world, Michigan loses its voice. It’s not easy to be non-partisan about it.
What?! Primaries a Problem?
In 2000, the election system in this country hit a big snag in Florida. Everyone involved would have preferred a landslide victory either way. Afterwards, elections in this country came under serious scrutiny, some of which fell on the party primary process. Too few people have too much power in the process, and many suggested ways to make it fair. Thoughtful solutions like rotating primaries were ignored, but you know you have a fairness problem when playing eenie-meenie-minie-moe is an improvement.
It is absolutely true that Iowa and New Hampshire have disproportionate influence on the presidential election process in relation to their populations, which don't really represent the country in terms of race, creed or economics. Too few people have too much power over the process. We knew it was an issue. And there were solid suggestions about how to change things and make them a least a bit more fair, but change did not happen.
Then, in 2004, after suggestions for plans to change the system were ignored, Howard Dean came in 3rd in Iowa's primary. Dean yelped, and the media over-hyped that yelp showed how the flaws in the primary system could disenfranchise voters. It became clear that the first contests could provide enough ammunition for an irresponsible media and shallow audience to end a national campaign, without the nation actually voting. Later, a lot of people thought that yelping was a pretty stupid reason to bounce a candidate, but the damage was done. The flawed primary system and power of being first, amplified by the media, let a fraction of a percent of the voters in this country deprive millions of voters their chance to choose. Over a yelp.
Through an interesting twist of fate, Howard Dean, the guy who got crushed after Iowa because he yelped, ended up in charge of the Democratic Party. Of course that guy would now make sure the show wasn’t over after Iowa. Surely, he’d bring his own experience to the system? Well, not really. The National Democratic Party has boosted a couple states earlier in the cycle. But they’re pretty small states (NV, SC). The National Democratic and Republican Parties let voters down - in seven years of scrutiny there has been little improvement in the primary system - in fact, the situation is now worse.
States Take the Lead
How did it get worse? Some states got antsy moved to make a change. The intention was noble: to make sure that Michigan voters had a say. They made their case on a national lever and that didn’t work, so the Michigan legislature tried to call “shotgun!” shifting the entire primary process forward by moving Michigan’s primary up to January 15th (Florida’s is on the 29th). And that’s how our stupid primary election was born.
It didn’t have to be stupid, but the folks who wrote the law that moved up the primary put all kinds of weird provisions in it, a kind of "electoral pork", to make campaigning easier and cheaper. One provision forces people to declare a party in the primary (violating the established right to vote in Michigan without declaring party affiliation). Another provision seals up records so that no citizen can check to verify if they were added to the Democratic or Republican mailing lists.
Eight years after Florida, the Michigan legislature, passed bi-partisan legislation that seals-up election records. Super. Transparency is the only way we the people can make sure elections are actually democratic. Politicians seal election records when they want to do something shady. It may be that they only want to save some money by making it impossible for third party number crunchers to analyze voting patterns and re-sell it to back to them. However harmless the reason, it doesn’t matter. We deserve better.
What Electoral Pork?
The electoral pork resulted in a series of legal challenges and injunctions that blocked and unblocked the primary in the months before this 2008 Michigan Primary Election. As it turns out, some judges in Michigan were opposed to closed election records. Trying to get a handle on it, the media reported the news as it unfolded day-by-day and, unless you were taking detailed notes, the whole thing didn’t make much sense. The legal wrangling gave the impression that the Michigan presidential primary, may or may not happen on the 15th, and made it impossible to plan around. That made it seem like the votes of Michigan citizens really weren’t that important.
Meanwhile, The National Democratic and Republican Parties had to react to the upstart Michiganders who weren’t doing what they were told, so they issued an ultimatum. The Democrats and Republicans both decided that any state that holds a primary before it was supposed to would loose its delegates to their respective national convention (Remember: a primary really only assigns the percentage of state delegates that will officially vote for candidate X, Y, or Z at the National Convention after all the primaries are over.). If you don’t follow the rules, you get no delegates.
Many of the state party leaders pushing in both Michigan and Florida essentially said, "We're so far back in the pack we just get to sign off on who is already picked anyway." Somehow, Michigan’s Republicans managed to work with their party to figure out how to avoid the humiliation that the Democratic Party candidates visited upon Michigan voters. All Republican presidential candidates are on the January 15th ballot, and Michigan has hosted a republican debate and we’ve even seen ads on TV for some of the candidates.
The Michigan Democratic Party’s negotiations with the National Democratic Party did not go as well. The Michigan democrats tried to keep their delegates by officially assigning them at a convention later in the year, according to the National Democratic Primary schedule, which effectively meant that the January 15th primary was just for show, a 10 million dollar opinion poll, since the end result of a primary is supposed to be assigned delegates. Then the National Democratic Party forbade any candidates to campaign in Michigan. The Democratic candidates for president agreed, perhaps scared by the strange notion that Hillary Clinton could win without campaigning, or because their campaigns were too busy with strategies for New Hampshire and Iowa to deal with Michigan’s more complicated issues.
So John Edwards (despite the fact that his campaign is managed by a stalwart Michigander, Former Congressman David Bonior) and Barak Obama pulled out, along with Bill Richardson and Joseph Biden, who called Michigan’s delegate free-democratic primary election a “beauty contest”. Dennis Kucinich tried to get off the ballot, but didn’t file the right paperwork – and he gets credit for being the only Democrat who actually did campaign in Michigan. At the last minute it was even proposed that the Michigan Legislature could fix this mess by a newer, better law forcing candidates to appear on the ballot. When they heard that, at least one of the drop-outs threatened to sue to stay off the ballot. Awesome.
There were good intentions along the way, and, as it turns out, Michigan’s Republican Primary will matter. But Democratic Party voters and democracy in general have taken a big hit. The state party spin that this “throwaway” primary is going to make a point to the National party is shameful. The decision of democratic and independent voters to sacrifice their vote to teach the national parties a lesson should have been ours.
Try selling that to Michigan’s troops in Iraq or Afghanistan – because of this silliness, they cannot vote two of the highest profile Democratic candidates, and some might not be able to vote at all because of the extra time it takes to print, send and return an absentee ballot from overseas. Imagine telling our troops – “Oh, we decided we’d sit this one out because we’ll get better seats next time.” How dare we send Michigan troops ballots without all the choices? They’ve earned them.
What Choice do I Have?
If you wanted to vote for Barak Obama or John Edwards, you can’t. There is no tricky “uncommitted” back door. If you vote “uncommitted”, a MI Democratic Party member at a statewide convention in March, may be able to leverage enough uncommitted votes to argue for delegates for Edwards or Obama. Or they may not. It has nowhere near the power of a vote cast in New Hampshire when a voter marks “Obama” on the ballot. A concerned democratic voter might have more direct influence registering for the party and attending the convention in March.
In addition, the effort to encourage voters to vote “uncommitted” cheapens this already dismal affair because the state does not track party affiliation except for the pork in this election. Processing that uncommitted vote puts your name onto the “secret” sealed lists that the state elections bureau has to collect and turn over to the parties at our expense. There’s nothing wrong with a good accurate mailing list going into a big election, and there is no doubt we need a healthy cathartic election this year, but state funds shouldn’t pay for the party’s secret projects.
That’s how it came to this: an election where attempting to balance an unfair system, National Party inaction, the best intentions of state party leaders, shady state legislative electoral pork, campaign ease, draconian ultimatums from the National Democratic Party, and undemocratic presidential candidate assumptions / anxiety / cowardice / ambivalence has resulted in disenfranchising millions of Michigan voters whose vote will count for even less than it did in the last primary. This is a stupid election considered a throwaway at this critical time in history that makes Michigan voters way, way, way less important than voters in the Democratic contests in New Hampshire or Iowa.
So that’s it the history of this stupid election. If you happen across one of the architects of this debacle, Michigan voters must all let them know that no matter how noble the intention, how important the message, no one should ever mess with our votes like this ever, ever again.
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