The Party Line Notebook: People over Proxies
These are my notes on the detailed arguments against (1) seating proxies before alternates and (2) allowing proxies at all. First, to make sure we’re all on the same page, some definitions.
State Central Committee (SCC)
The SCC is the highest governing body of the Michigan Democratic Party outside of a convened State Convention, which happens only once a year for a few hours. In effect, it is the working legislature of the MDP. It consists of 172 delegates and 172 alternates who are elected in odd number years at the Spring MDP Convention, plus their elected officers (some of which are problematic, as I’ve detailed here).
Alternates are elected members of the SCC who do not hold an automatic vote on the committee. Alternates are given votes only if a delegate is absent. Alternates are elected by their Congressional District explicitly for the purpose of standing in for absent delegates.
A proxy is a vote given to a personally appointed representative of an individual delegate; both the piece of paper that carries the vote and the person who holds it are called “proxies”. When a delegate plans to be absent from and SCC meeting, the rules allow the delegate to appoint another person to cast “their” vote. Proxies are not elected by the Congressional District. Proxies do not represent the Congressional District. Proxies only represent the individual delegate who gave the proxy.
Proxies and Alternates at SCC Meeting
Currently, MDP Rules require proxies be seated (given a vote) before alternates are considered. As a result, many alternates who attend SCC meetings are not granted a vote even when delegates from their CD are absent. Instead, the proxy gets the vote. The alternate, the elected representative of their CD, is sidelined.
I believe in People over Proxies for the following reasons.
In a democracy, you get to vote on who is allowed to represent you. You don’t get to vote on who holds the proxy. The proxy was appointed by the individual delegate who gave the proxy. Just that one person dictates who holds their proxy. No one else gets a vote. That’s not democracy, that’s dictatorship in microcosm. The proxy doesn’t represent you. The proxy only represents the individual dictator who gave the proxy.
You get to vote on who is allowed to represent you is the fundamental principle of democracy. You can’t have democracy without this principle. When we abandon this principle, we abandon democracy.
Arguments from Democratic Principles
First, proxies strip people of their right to be represented by a person they explicitly elected for that purpose. Often, proxies from delegates in one CD are given to delegates from a different CD. For example, CD3 delegates giving their proxies to delegates from CD5. No one in CD3 voted for the people in CD5 casting CD3’s votes at the SCC meeting. The CD5 delegate casting CD3’s votes does not represent the people of CD3. They only represent the individual delegates who appointed them. The individual delegate dictates who will represent the CD. The CD doesn’t get a vote.
Second, it is common practice in some organization within the MDP to ask their members (who are on the SCC) for proxies, to be given to a specific individual. For example, a few months ago the Chair of CD3 sent out an email asking CD3 delegates to send their proxies to a specific delegate from CD5. The Chair had to explain who the CD5 delegate was, because the Chair didn’t expect the CD3 delegates to know. Sometimes, MDP organizations don’t even tell the delegates who will get their proxies. The delegates are told to sign the proxy form and leave the name of the proxy blank. The organization will fill that in later.
In both circumstances, the delegate giving the proxy is abdicating their duty to represent their CD. If the delegate giving the proxy doesn’t know the person holding their proxy well – or at all – they cannot claim to know how that person will vote. They’re just guessing. Since they can’t claim to know how their proxy be used, they can’t claim to be representing their Congressional District. Their just abdicating in favor of whoever is holding the proxy.
I’m not saying anyone has abdicated intentionally. The MDP makes it seem like this is perfectly fine, the top leadership has signed off on doing things this way. It’s “the way we’ve always done it”. Why should anyone question it? This is why you should question it. Democracy is why you should question it.
Third, suppose CD3 has 10 delegates on the SCC. When one CD3 delegate gives their proxy to another CD3 delegate, CD3 is only represented by 9 people – and one piece of paper. The piece of paper can’t listen to arguments, ask questions, make arguments, consider new information or ideas, come to its own conclusions, or think for itself. The people of CD3 have the right to be represented by 10 human beings who can listen, ask, argue, consider, conclude, and think for themselves. Proxies strip every person of their right to be fully and appropriately represented by 10 fully capable human beings – even as one of their elected representatives, the alternate, stands ready and able to perform that duty. When someone holds 10, 20, 30 or more proxies, the problem is that much worse.
Arguments from Politics
We are the Michigan Democratic Party. When we do something this blatantly anti-democratic it deepens the conviction among many that the Party cannot be trusted. Every time we do something this anti-democratic we further the narrative the DNC stoked when they argued, in open court, that they’re not obligated to follow their own rules.
How many people voting for alternates at the spring Convention know that alternates often don’t get seated (given a vote), because the MDP seats proxies first? How many are just learning this now? This is a deceitful practice. Yes, you can read the rules and figure this out. I certainly did. But when we’re voting at the Convention, they’re called delegates and alternates. It makes it appear like when the delegate isn’t present, the alternates represent the Congressional District. Why else would we elect delegates and alternates? Unless you read the rules closely. Most people don’t read the rules that closely. When people find out what’s actually going on, they feel deceived – with good reason.
When we do things this blatantly anti-democratic, people notice. When we do things like this, we drive people away from the Party.
Arguments from Precedent
First, Robert’s Rules of Order is the gold standard reference for parliamentary procedures. 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 (RRoO 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; emphasis added). 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; emphasis added). Robert’s Rules prohibits proxy voting altogether for deliberative assemblies like the SCC (429:10), unless state law “requires it” (428:34). Michigan state law does not require it.
Second, following that precedent, in the 1974 and the 1991 MDP rules, alternates are seated before proxies. Sometime between 1991 and 2016, the rules were changed to seat proxies before alternates. This was done very deliberately (as I detailed here) to give more power to delegates and take power away from alternates. They also included a specific provision to allow delegates from one CD to give their proxies to delegates from another CD, which is specifically illegal under Michigan Election law (as I detailed here). That way, they can “farm” more proxies (from anywhere in the state) and concentrate more voting power in the hands of fewer people – like the Chair of CD3 was “farming” proxies for the delegate in CD5.
The only group with that kind of influence and the ability to change the rules is the establishment (as defined here; it’s not the definition many think). The rule that allows proxies in the first place, plus the rule that require proxies be seated before alternates, plus the rule that allows proxies from one CD to be held by delegates in another, is a package of rules that makes it easier for a small group of people to wield disproportionate influence over MDP decision making. They can collect dozens of proxies from across the state and put them in very few hands, sometimes a single person may have as many as 10, 20, or 30 proxies; instances of 40 and 50 have been reported. That’s not democracy, that’s oligarchy – rule by the powerful few.
I’m not at all claiming that anyone around now is doing this deliberately, to nefariously gain the upper hand in SCC meetings – by now, it’s just “the way we’ve always done it”. And folks keep doing things that way, without considering the implications for democracy. The people who originally changed the rules to get this anti-democratic cheat going knew exactly what they were doing. Now we know what’s going on, we have an obligation as leaders of the Democratic Party to restore democracy in our party.
Third, we do not allow proxy voting at County, Congressional District, or State Conventions. We do not allow proxy voting in the selection of delegates and alternates to the DNC National Convention. We don’t allow proxies at Conventions because the voting that happens at Conventions is important. Conventions are where decisions get made about who will run the Party, what resolutions we’re going to adopt, what the planks of our platform are going to be.
We take the same kinds of votes in the State Central Committee. The SCC is the highest authority in the MDP except for a few hours every year when a State Convention is convened. The SCC elect officers of the MDP. The SCC elects our representatives to the Democratic National Committee. We vote on policies and resolutions binding on the whole Party. We don’t allow proxy voting in other places where these important votes are taken, we recognize that would be anti-democratic. We should not allow them in the State Central Committee – where exactly the same kinds of votes are taken.
Argument from Respect
Alternates often drive long distances across the state to attend meetings in person. They’re showing dedication to their office and to their Congressional District. These are people who really want to be involved, coming far knowing they only get a vote if a delegate happens to be absent, never knowing until they arrive if they will have a vote. When we sideline them in favor or a piece of paper, it’s a gigantic slap in the face to the alternate. It discourages them from participating. I know people who stopped participating in the Party because they were treated this way.
It’s a gigantic slap in the face to their District – it denies them representation by their elected representative present and ready to perform that duty, in favor of an individual delegate’s personally appointed representative with a piece of paper. Often, no one in the District even knows the delegate’s personal representative – sometimes not even the delegate who gave the proxy knows their own personal representative well, or even at all. That’s a double slap in the face to the alternate and the District.
Proxies strip people of their democratic right to be represented by someone they voted for. Proxies allows Congressional Districts to be represented by someone no one in the CD voted for. The delegate giving the proxy is dictating who will represent the CD. The people of the Congressional District don’t get to vote on who is allowed to represent them. This dictatorship in microcosm. It is purely anti-democratic.
Proxies strip people of their right to be represented by a human being who can ask questions, listen to arguments, consider new information, and think for themselves. A piece of paper cannot represent the people of a Congressional District appropriately or adequately. A piece of paper is no substitute for a human being.
When CDs vote for their delegates and alternates, it appears alternates replace absent delegates, while the truth is that proxies are given votes before alternates. When people learn about this, they feel deceived; this grows distrust of the Party – with good reason. Proxies are deceitful and drive people away from the Party.
Proxies are a slap in the face to alternates, who were elected by their CDs to replace absent delegates, and often drive long distances to attend meetings in person – only to be sidelines by a person no one in their districts voted for, sometimes a person no one in their District even knows.
Proxies are a device of authoritarian and dictatorial systems. They are suited to corporate environments, not democratic environments. Proxies have no place in an organization calling itself the Democratic Party.
Thank you for putting this together and I surely expect that those who are interested in following democratic principles will agree with your proposal to keep representation within the districts. Using proxies is a form of gerrymandering votes when it is used by powerful forces to move votes across district bounderies. I strongly support the rules committee reviewing the current voting rules and clearly extablish the priority of in-district votes over cross-district proxies in SCC voting.