Issue 1: The Proxy Problem

At the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) State Convention every two years, Party members elect delegates and alternates from each district to represent them at the State Central Committee (SCC). Alternates are elected to vote in place of delegates who are absent. A proxy allows a delegate to assign their vote to a specific person when they expect to be absent. Alternates – the elected replacements –  should be seated (given a vote) before proxies. In the MDP, that’s not what happens, and that’s a problem. Alternates are blocked from voting. Instead, the Party seats proxies before considering alternates. That’s backwards, and it needs to be fixed.

Back in 2017, Wil Gallivan, a progressive from Congressional District 14 (CD 14), got proxies from folks in CD 11 and 13. When he went to register the proxies and get their voting cards, the Party said they weren’t valid because they weren’t from his home district. Gallivan and other progressives hadn’t given it much thought until then, but thinking it through realized it was a fair and democratic rule. After all, if they’re not in the district, nobody in the district voted for them. Awesome! The Party is doing the democratic thing.

The vote belongs to the district, not the delegate.
The alternates represent the district.

Then someone noticed certain delegates – bigwigs in the party – were using proxies from all over the state. Not just their home district. We asked again, and suddenly, “Oh, yeah, you can do that, didn’t you know?”  I looked at the rules and it very clearly says a proxy vote “shall be cast only in” the delegate’s district (2018 MDP Rule 6.7.1, the current rules). They’re saying “in” the district means “counted with the district” – sometimes we count the vote in each district separately, in order to weight the vote by district population. You would think “in” the district should mean “cast by a member from” the district, but not in the MDP.

Think about that. The district is supposed to decide who represents them. The vote belongs to the district, not the delegate. The alternates represent the district. Suppose a district elects Tony as a delegate and Steve as an alternate. Tony knows he will miss a meeting, and gives his proxy to Matt.

The district didn’t vote for Matt, they voted for Tony. They voted for Steve, or another alternate, to replace Tony if needed. Even if Matt was elected from the same district, the district elected him to cast a single vote – not two, three, ten, or more votes.

No one voted for Matt to cast Tony’s vote. They voted for Steve, or another alternate, to cast Tony’s vote in Tony’s absence. Given a choice between seating a proxy or seating an alternate, the democratic thing to do is seat Steve, the alternate. All Matt has is Tony’s signature. Steve got the votes.

Mistakes or Corruption?

This kind of thing drives a lot of people away from the Democratic Party. They get in, they’re fired up, then they start noticing all the big and little ways the rules are rigged to favor the establishment, those already in power. It’s rigged that way so they can stay in power.

Why do they use this tortured interpretation of proxies and alternates? So Party bigwigs can walk in to State Central Committee meetings with stacks of proxies, and control the MDP.

There’s a process the establishment follows when selecting people for their “Unity Slate”. At the top are the establishment loyalists, followed by enough supporters to fill the slots – folks who will vote with the establishment. State Central meetings move around the state. If the meeting’s in Kalamazoo, some folks from the east side aren’t going to make it. If it’s in Traverse City or St. Ignace, a lot of folks from Detroit and the southeast aren’t going to drive up. There are some folks who aren’t going to make it even if the meeting is nearby. Some people get selected for the “Unity Slate” in part because they’re less likely to show up, more likely to hand over their vote more often. The establishment is usually assured a large number of absentees they can harvest proxies from no matter where the meeting is. Then they put new people, reformists, and progressives on as alternates. Anyone they’re not convinced will vote with them.

It is a fundamental principle of parliamentary law that the right to vote is limited to the members … actually present 

Robert’s Rules of Order (423:17)

Then they solicit proxies from across the state, and come to the meeting with stacks of them, sometimes as many as 10, 20, or 30. Instances of 40 or 50 have been reported. Congressional District chairs send out letters as the Chair – under their district logos – with directions explaining who to sign your vote over to, and where to send it, if you’d like to help out the team. Alternates show up dutifully, prepared to represent the district if someone is absent, but sit on the sidelines watching someone – not even from their district – vote for their district.

The rules say to seat proxies before alternates. They say, “Alternates temporarily replace delegates who are not present in person or by written proxy at a State Central Meeting” (2018 MDP Rule 6.2.1; emphasis added). If a delegate is “present” by proxy, they’re counted as present in person, and the alternate is blocked. They wouldn’t have to say “or by written proxy” in the rules if it were common practice. If it were common practice, it would be in Robert’s Rules of Order. Regarding anything not covered in the Party rules, Robert’s Rules governs the MDP (2018 MDP Rule 2.6). 

Robert’s Rules says, “It is a fundamental principle of parliamentary law that the right to vote is limited to the members … actually present” when the vote is taken (Robert’s Rules 11th Edition, 423:17; emphasis added); “an organization should never … adopt … a voting procedure in which the votes of persons who attend … are counted together with … absentees” (423:25). Because the votes of those present “could be affected by debate, by amendment … while those absent would be unable to adjust their votes to reflect these factors” (423:29). Robert’s goes on to say, “proxy voting is incompatible” with “deliberative assemblies” where “membership is individual, personal, and nontransferable,” like the SCC (428:35). Robert’s Rules prohibits proxy voting altogether for deliberative assemblies like the SCC (429:10), unless state law “requires it” (428:34).

Just having proxy voting is a violation of the “fundamental principle of parliamentary law”. Seating proxies before alternates is so far outside the bounds of parliamentary law, Robert’s Rules, the premier repository of parliamentary procedure, doesn’t have a procedure for it. Doesn’t even mention it as a possibility.

The 1974 and 1991 MDP rules don’t have the phrase “or by written proxy” (1974, 1991, 2016 Rule 7.B.1; 2018 Rule 6.2.1). They also don’t have the phrase “shall be cast only in” (1974, 1991, 2016 Rule 7.G; 2018 Rule 6.7.1). They don’t appear until sometime after 1991. In both cases, the earlier rules are missing the whole sentence where these phrases later appear. The earlier rules just say, “alternates shall assume all the rights and perform all the duties and functions of the members of the State Central Committee while seated” (1974, 1991 MDP Rules 7.B.1).

These changes were deliberate. They work together to create a very specific effect. The “shall be cast only in” line allows Party bigwigs to use proxies from any district – if they can only collect proxies from their home district, they can’t bring in a lot of proxies. They have to be able to use proxies from all over the state to make this tactic worth their while – to get enough power concentrated in few enough hands to effectively control the Party.

Once they’ve collected their proxies, they have to get proxies seated before alternates. There’s no point collecting that many proxies if a bunch of alternates can show up and get seated ahead of you. This is where “or by written proxy” comes in.

Whoever did it knew exactly what they were doing. Consider how far they went to cover their tracks. In 1974 and 1991, rule 9.F reads “If the number of delegates, alternates and proxies … does not equal the number of votes allocated to that delegation … the remaining votes … shall be divided equally among those delegates and alternates present from that District”. In the 2016 (9.F) and 2018 (8.6) rules, that sentence begins “if the number of delegates, proxies and alternates … “. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Sometime between 1991 and 2016, someone switched proxies and alternates in 9.F, and added those two sentences in 7.B.1 and 7.G – so Party bigwigs could hold stacks of proxies and block alternates. To accomplish this, they disenfranchised every person in every district – by preventing the duly elected representatives of the district, the alternates, from performing the duties they were elected to perform. Instead, the Party installs “representatives” no one in the district voted for. This is just one example of how the establishment uses the power of their positions to undermine the fundamental principles of representative democracy. One of which is you get to vote for your representatives.

There are about 6 people who do this regularly, all bigwigs in the Party, and others who do it on a smaller scale. Usually, there are alternates from those districts present in person. Often, they’ve traveled long distances to attend in person. A proxy is just a piece of paper Matt uses as an extra vote – it can’t participate in debates, ask questions, take in new information, come to its own conclusions. Alternates attending in person can. The establishment would rather they didn’t. It’s easier to control the Party when people who might disagree with the establishment don’t get to vote.

This looks like corruption.

It looks like the Party taking away the right of every person, in every Congressional District Party, to be represented by someone they actually voted for

What’s the Party line?
The proxy form is a binding contract between Tony and Matt, that the MDP is bound by law to enforce and uphold.

In the next issue of The Party Line
Congressional District 14, and The Way We’ve Always Done It.

Liano Sharon is a member of the Michigan Democratic Party State Central Committee (CD12), the MDP SCC Rules and Political Reform Committee, the Washtenaw County Democratic Party Executive Board, and serves as Co-Chair of the WCDP Rules Committee.