I am a Michigan Democratic Party member, serving on the State Central Committee and the State Party Rules Committee. Together with a coalition of many people from across the state, I am working to bring greater democracy, transparency, and inclusion to the Michigan Democratic Party.
When my friends and I first joined the party, I doubted we’d be treated fairly, but I kept an open mind. The first several meetings I went to were great. People were friendly, welcoming. Particularly two friends who often went out of their way to greet and talk to me. One was a local party board member, the other a county commissioner and DNC delegate. I voiced my concerns about the party, and they assured me the party doesn’t break the rules or play any other games.
When the congressional district conventions came around, the chair of my district – the 12th – bent over backward to make us welcome. We brought nine resolutions to county and district conventions all across the state. We were new, we didn’t know anyone. The chair didn’t put just one of us on the resolutions committee, he put several. He was giving us a chance to make our case, with several voices, even though he didn’t have to. I was grateful. We got several of our resolutions through the CD12 resolutions committee. Some people in my coalition were saying “don’t trust them, they’re going to screw you”. I told them party leadership had done right by me so far, and I’d keep trusting them until someone gave me a specific reason to stop.
When we went to the state convention, the constituent caucuses went fine. Then came the district caucuses, where we elect state central committee delegates and alternates. Positions that – at least on paper – have real power in the party. The state central committee is – at least on paper – the highest authority in the MDP outside of a state convention.
Party leadership started breaking the rules the moment we arrived. They had announced one type of proportional voting (slate voting) more than 30 days in advance. When we arrived, they switched it for a different kind of proportional voting (cumulative voting), violating Timely Notice. It was disconcerting, but what mattered to me was proportional voting, so I decided to let it go. I was still thinking about the ins and out of cumulative voting, when the chair started explaining how he was going to run the election. He wasn’t describing either slate voting or cumulative voting, he was describing a non-proportional voting system, called plurality winner first past the post. Don’t get caught up in the jargon. The key facts are:
- The rules require proportional voting.
- They announced slate voting, a proportional voting system.
- At the last minute they switched to cumulative voting, a proportional voting system.
- At the last second they switched to plurality winner – not a proportional voting system.
I objected, of course. I tried explaining to the chair how cumulative voting works. I know because I’ve been an election systems geek since I was about twelve. I know because cumulative voting is covered in Robert’s Rules. I know because cumulative voting is commonly used by the federal courts to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The chair of the 12th turned to the assembled congressional district, and called a vote to accept or reject his interpretation of proportional voting. I called for the parliamentarian. The congressional district doesn’t have the power or authority to change the definition of proportional voting.
The parliamentarian is a nice guy. I’ve since served with him on the state party rules committee during some of our most contentious disputes. He’s done a great job through all that. He knows Robert’s Rules very well, knows MDP rules, and does a good job of being a fair and neutral chair.
The first time I met him, he told me the election system equivalent of 2 + 2 = 7. For something like 20 minutes he tried to convince me that proportional voting = not proportional voting. I was flabbergasted. We’d brought the whole election to a halt and we were in danger of running over into the state party caucus.
The local board member who’d been so nice to me earlier came up and pulled me aside, “This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to put you on our slate, and I’m going to make them vote for you – you know I can do that, right?” they said, pointing at a crowd of voters. I was stunned. In the middle of a botched Democratic Party election, I was being given an ultimatum – We’ll give you one seat, take it or leave it. In the middle of a purportedly democratic election, people were going to be “made to vote” a particular way. It’s impossible to have democracy in an organization where some people tell others how to vote – and can expect to be obeyed.
We had enough people in the room to win at least four and maybe eight seats by proportional voting. I said something to the effect of “Under slate voting, if we have the votes to win one, we have the votes to win four.” They’d get back to me, the board member told me. I huddled with my coalition for a few, then the board member came back and pulled me aside again. “You can have one male delegate and one female alternate, I’m not asking anyone else to give up their seat.” It’s impossible to have a democracy in an organization where some people have “their seat” before they’re voted into office.
I did not vote or lobby my coalition for or against the deal. I wasn’t even there for the vote. One of my compatriots came over to where negotiations had stalled, and told me the coalition voted to take the deal.
After the repeated assurances from the local board member and the DNC delegate, after bending over backwards to be nice to the new folks at the district convention, the chair of the 12th had broken the rules many times in a single election. Many people in my coalition said, “We told you so.”
I was livid. I felt betrayed, lied to, deceived by party leadership. I vented quite a bit over the next few days (as some members can attest), but I kept an open mind. I had to admit there was another possibility. Maybe none of it was intentional. Maybe they’ve just been doing it that way so long, they don’t know that it’s wrong. I got down to gathering data and writing appeals.
The only way to tell the difference between many people just doing things “the way we’ve always done it” and an aware establishment is to push the system to the limits. I wrote four appeals and assisted on a fifth. When I delivered them, I brought a receipt for the receptionist to sign. Trust, but take reasonable precautions.
Some months later, at the People’s Summit in Chicago, the DNC delegate – literally screaming spittle in my face – accused me of “reneging on the deal” because I filed those appeals. This person helped break the rules, participated in pressuring us to take a raw deal, and expected us to keep our traps shut about it. More specifically, she expected me to keep my trap shut about it. I was the negotiator for the deal, I got the seat on state central, I had been paid off and I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. I certainly wasn’t supposed to file five appeals, create a media site, and start reporting as much as I could on how the Michigan Democratic Party actually does business.
The appeals were all rejected. In their decisions, the appeals committee did not dispute my version of events, nor my interpretations of the rules. They simply said, “We already ruled on this point 20 years ago, and the way the chair did it is fine.” Which in context means proportional voting = not proportional voting and timely notice = no timely notice. I started eyeing my copy of 1984. I re-read Voltaire: “anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities, has the power to make you commit injustices.” I asked where these rulings were kept, and could I have copies? They’re kept “in our attorney’s filing cabinet” I was told.
Secret rules – especially secret rules that turn the published rules on their head – are one of the signs of an aware establishment. Footprints in the red tape. They aren’t definitive evidence, just very compelling. It was still possible everyone was just doing things “they way we’ve always done it,” passed down to them from 20 years ago. Including the appeals committee. But I was starting to have my doubts.
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