A few weeks ago, the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) State Central Committee (SCC) approved a very unconventional Call to Convention for the February 20th, 2021 State Convention. It specifically and explicitly contradicts at least one Party rule and implicitly several others. It grants Congressional District Chairs extraordinary powers not even contemplated in Party rules.

It is a clear and explicit example of what I mean when I say the people running the Party do not know or do not understand the rules; or they haven’t thought through how the way they’ve always done it, handed-down from their predecessors going back decades, discriminates and excludes, is opaque, undemocratic, and unfair. I do not particularly blame them for this. They’re mostly good people who are working hard and believe they’re doing the right thing. They’re doing things the way they’ve always been done. The way their predecessors did before them. Much of the Call to Convention could have been copied from any of the previous four years, and probably was. It changed a bit more this year because of covid, but otherwise, not much.

The Call to Convention specifically says that “membership applications may not be submitted by Fax” (emphasis added). However, MDP Rule 3.1.1 says “Membership is effective on the date that the membership form is … received by fax machine” (emphasis added). While this seems like a small issue, it is a simple and stark example of the blatant disregard for the rules displayed in the Call to Convention.

The Call describes three Convention Committees: Credentials, Rules, and Resolutions. The Call says “Each district shall be entitled to two Members (one male and one female) and two Alternates (one male and one female)” on each of the three committees. That’s four members per committee, so each Congressional District has a total of 12 positions to fill. The Call instructs Congressional Districts 9, 11, 12, 13, and 14 to hold a District Convention, where they will elect their representatives on those Convention Committees. For the other Districts, 1 – 8 and 10, it instructs their Counties to hold conventions, not the District. The Call says “Committee members shall be apportioned among the various Counties of each District.” There are huge problems with this.

First, Congressional Districts 1 and 4 each have more than 12 Counties. CD1 has 32 Counties and CD4 has 15. Each District has just 12 representatives across all three Convention Committees. If CD1 does not to hold a Convention of their whole District, at least 20 rural counties will be outright disenfranchised, with no way of having any influence on the Convention Committees. CD leadership will decide which counties get to fill one of those 12 positions, and which counties will simple be unrepresented. Similarly, 3 counties in CD4 will be entirely disenfranchised, also largely rural counties. So let’s be clear: the Democratic Party wants to bring more rural folks back into the Party, but the way we conduct our State Conventions outright disenfranchises 23 specifically rural counties. That’s more than a quarter of the counties in our state, and we Democrats are just writing them out of any ability to have their voices heard. There’s nothing democratic about that. This is a losing strategy. If we want people to participate, we must include them in our decision-making process. Otherwise, they recognize they have no power or influence, and they leave, often with massive antipathy for the Party. They went to the Democratic Party, and it was not democratic. They feel betrayed, and rightly so; it stays with them for a long time.

Second, “apportioning” these committee members among the “Counties of each District” means the members of many counties are discriminated against based on gender, which is forbidden under Party rules (MDP rules 2.7, 2.8, and 2.10). For example, in some counties, there will only be one position available and it will be for a male. No female from that County can run for any Convention Committee – not allowed, by reason of gender. And of course the same is true for males in Counties where only a female position is allocated. This is just a blatant and egregious violation of Party rules against discrimination based on gender. 

Third, since there are only four positions for each District on each Committee, in any CD with more than four Counties MDP members from some Counties will have no power to influence one or more Convention Committees. For example, in a District with 5 counties, one county will have no position for at least one of the Convention Committees. That is, some members of the MDP, particularly in more rural areas, will be explicitly disenfranchised from one or more Convention Committees because the Party allocates just four positions among more than four Counties, and in Districts 1 – 8 and 10, they don’t hold District Conventions, only County Conventions. Of course, it’s worse than that. There are only two delegate positions, the other two are alternates. Even if there are only four counties in a CD, two of them can only elect alternates. That’s sort of like being half-disenfranchised, you’re represented, but only by alternates who often don’t get to vote. In the MDP, where proxies are seated before alternates, it’s even less likely that alternates get to vote.

The solution is simple: hold a District Convention in every district, so everyone has a voice on all three committees and everyone has the opportunity to run, regardless of gender or place of residence in the district. This is trivially simple to do with our existing technology – hold a zoom meeting. Every County and Congressional District Party has been doing that since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Call also says that none of the elections for Convention Committees matter in the slightest, because CD Chairs can just decide who gets on to these Committees regardless of what the members decided by their vote at the election. From the Call to Convention: “the Congressional District Chairperson shall have the final responsibility for approving appointments to Convention committees” (emphasis added). It doesn’t matter how you vote, your CD Chair has the right to approve or disapprove any decision made by the membership, according to the Call. Nothing in the MDP rules suggests this is allowed. Nothing in Robert’s Rules of Order (Party rules default to Robert’s Rules on issues they don’t address) suggests this is allowed. It’s just a power grab. If the establishment doesn’t like someone who got elected, the Chair just replaces them with someone else, the expressed will of the voters be damned – like a one-person electoral college, dictating the outcome of the election against the popular vote of the people.

This is actually what the establishment does. Just before the last State Convention, there was a county where the Chair just appointed people to the Convention Committees and didn’t even tell the County Party members who were appointed. We know because a good progressive was there, asking to be on one of the Committees. She was told he’d think about it, then he never got back to her. The people he chose were appointed, no one else had any influence or power over the choices.

Representation matters. The people in rural counties are not being represented in the Michigan Democratic Party the same way everyone in more urban counties is being represented. Instead of being included, they’re being excluded.

MDP membership has been flat over the past four years, as it has been for decades. When I came into the Party in 2016, there were about 10,000 members. As part of my job running the Dana Nessel campaign for the Party endorsement, I ran the largest recruitment drive in State Party history, bringing over 3,300 entirely new members into the Party and bringing back a great many lapsed members as well. Progressives drove membership up to about 20,000 with our last big recruitment drive in 2018. Since then, membership has dropped back to 10,000. The Party could not retain the energized activists and other progressives we brought into the Party. Attorney General Nessel has only grown in popularity, but the people her candidacy helped bring into the Party haven’t stuck around. In large part, because we do not have fair, inclusive, transparent, and democratic rules enforced fairly. New people joining the Party may not know the rules, but they have a decent sense of fairness, inclusion, transparency, and democracy. Not everyone can articulate it well, but the vast majority of people know when they’re being disenfranchised, silenced, or ignored. They won’t hang around an organization that disrespects them that deeply, doesn’t matter if the disrespect is intentional or not.

I want to grow our membership. In a state of 10 million people, where some millions regularly vote for the Democratic nominee, our membership should be in the several hundred-thousands or low millions. One big reason we don’t have those numbers is the fact we disenfranchise rural members of the Party. Another is we discriminate based on gender in direct contradiction to our rules. And another is we grant dictatorial powers to selected “leaders” and pretend that’s ok in a democracy, nothing to see here, move along. It’s not ok. It needs to stop, and it needs to change. New members notice, and once they’ve noticed this kind of thing a few times, they want nothing to do with the Party. 

The first step to growing membership is creating a welcoming environment where new members feel heard and empowered and actually are heard and empowered. The first step to creating that environment is making sure everyone is treated fairly, are included, are provided transparent information in a timely manner, and processes are conducted democratically, while rules are enforced fairly as written, and where they’re unfair, exclusive, opaque, or undemocratic, the rules get revised to correct the problem. That’s the mission of MI Solidarity. That’s why I’m on the organizing team for misolidarity.org. Making the rules fair, inclusive, transparent, and democratic is how we build trust, build membership, grow solidarity among our members, and win elections and policy goals. 

Rules are the foundation of Trust. Trust is the root of Solidarity. Solidarity is the Source of Victory. 

Victory is built on a foundation of rules trusted by all. The rules in this Call to Convention can be trusted to foster division, not solidarity. They create a material urban-rural divide in the Party. Largely urban counties are fully represented, many largely rural counties are under-represented or not represented at all. If we want solidarity, we must build bridges to more communities, not exclude them.

MDP leadership was advised of these issues, but have not yet responded.

Please show your support for Michigan Progressive by supporting us on Patreon, joining our YouTube channel, liking and following our Facebook page, or subscribing to our podcast, State of the RevolutionRSS | Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Google Play | Pocket Casts | Patreon. Any of these really help us reach more people and produce more content. If you’re interested in writing, audio/visual production, or would like to help out in some other way, get in touch directly: Liano at michiganprogressive.com.

We win this fight together, or not at all.