A spectre is haunting the Democratic Party, the spectre of an ugly, albeit unnecessary, floor-fight over Florida and Michigan delegates at the national convention in August.
When Susan Keeler, a registered voter from a small township in Michigan, opened her absentee ballot last January, she expected to vote for Obama. Suddenly she discovered that his name was not on the ballot. In an interview with the Flint Journal, she expressed her feelings: "There is something wrong with this. People don t even have a choice to vote for the person we want to vote for. The only name I even recognize here is Hillary Clinton. It appears people are trying to control how to vote."
Thousands of Michigan voters now feel disenfranchised.
Like Michigan, Florida held a beauty contest in January before the official primaries began, and thousands of voters were upset and confused. Florida is the same state that illegally purged thousands of African-American voters from its rolls in 2000.
How did the Florida-Michigan debacle come to pass? And by what means can the mishaps of the Democratic National Committee and state party officials be rectified before the Democratic party convention in August in Denver, Colorado?
185 delegates from Florida and 128 from Michigan are at stake.
The Michigan-Florida delegate controversy began to percolate in December 2007, when state party officials announced their intentions to hold early primaries in direct violation of Democratic National Committee agreements and rules. The DNC took a hard line, telling state officials that rebel primaries were ceremonial and would not be counted at the convention. Both states disregarded the DNC position and held maverick primaries in January. Eager to please the superdelegates on the DNC, both Clinton and Obama agreed with the rules, and both signed pledges not to campaign in either state. "You know," Senator Clinton remarked, "it's clear the election they're having isn't going to count for anything. Obama's name did not even appear on the ballot in Michigan." (Obama was not allowed to withdraw his name in Florida.)
Clinton, however, hedged her bets. Though she vowed not to campaign, a vow that implies rejection of the election, she kept her name in the running in Michigan. She won the contest easily because Obama's name was kept off the ballot. (Jesse Jackson won the Michigan primary in 1984.) Then, coincidentally she arrived at the Miami airport for a fundraiser on the eve of the Florida vote.
As momentum for Obama's nomination swelled, Clinton reversed her position on the DNC rules and decisions. She now demands that the results of the ceremonial contests be made official. And she is pressuring the credentials committee to reverse itself. She is also encouraging superdelegates to overrule the voters. The Clintons have huge clout in Washington, where favors have been exchanged for many years.
Of course, it is hypocritical to oppose a half-election before it takes place, only to accept the results when they appear favorable.
What can be done to resolve a crisis that could destroy the chance for Democratic victory in November?
There are three approaches to the Party debacle, and two of them are faulty.
The first approach makes a big deal about the DNC rules. It goes like this: both states violated the rules, so to hell with them. No Florida or Michigan delegates at the convention. That's that. Here is a dangerous position. Left out, disgruntled voters in Michigan and Florida may well turn to McCain in November. Democrats have an obligation to end the insider fighting between DNC members and the states' Democratic party officials.
The second approach, a solution that Clinton is prepared to force on the Party regardless of the consequences, is also faulty. Clinton now claims she deserves the delegates from Michigan and Florida. Yes, Obama played by the rules. Tough on him.
She is dead wrong, and we should set the record straight. The DNC did not strip Michigan and Florida of its delegates. The Democratic party is quite willing to welcome all duly elected delegates from both states. However, Michigan and Florida have yet to produce any duly elected delegates delegates chosen by voters in a fair election. Only a genuine election, where the voters are able to hear both sides, where the names of all contenders appear on the ballot, can produce legitimate delegates at the convention. No real election took place in January. That is the crux of the issue. Clinton may claim that she is defending the voters, but she is actually manufacturing delegates out of a beauty contest that turned ugly. Her plan disenfranchises voters in both states. Thousands and thousands of voters, who would have voted for Obama in an official election, stayed home. If only one name appears on the ballot in a communist country, it's called a dictatorship.
Susan Parnes in Flint, Michigan, planned to vote for Obama. When she realized his name was missing from the ballot, she said: "It gives me a very nasty taste in my mouth. I've begged people to go vote in the primary, and then this crap comes up."
There is a solution, a third approach that is practical and clear. Hold new elections or caucuses in both states. There's plenty of time left before the convention. The DNC, which bears some responsibility for the crisis, is prepared to pay the costs. Let the candidates campaign. Make sure all of the candidates' names are on the ballots. If a flood, a hurricane, or any natural disaster destroyed half the ballots in an election, the election would be held again.
Respect for principles of democracy is a precondition of Democratic victory in November.
Paul Rockwell is a national columnist who lives in Oakland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org