Tuesday, May 29, 2012

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Recalls, Precinct Caucuses And Other Forms of Political Mischief

In a few days, Wisconsin is going to have its second recall vote within a year.
On June 5, Governor Scott Walker and four Republican state senators are
being challenged in a recall election using a provision peculiar to the Badger
State and a few other states. If we can believe latest polls, all the incumbents
will be reaffirmed in their offices, and an attempt by disgruntled Wisconsin
union members to veto Mr. Walker's historic defeat of the state employees
union in concert with the Republican legislature, will fail. Of course, the
votes have not yet been cast and tallied, so supporters of Mr. Walker and
his colleagues cannot take anything for granted (one of the senate recall
races, furthermore, is relatively close).

The recall campaign has not gone well. The unions' own gubernatorial
candidate lost to Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who was
defeated by Walker in the most recent general election) in the primary.
Many of Governor Walker's reforms are already producing positive results,
and the Walker campaign is understandably not shy about touting his
successes. Many Wisconsin voters, including Democrats and independents
still not enthusiastic about the governor, are getting tired of these recalls and
the activity associated with them. Republicans have labeled some of this
activity outright "thuggery."

Beyond the specifics in this Wisconsin recall, there is the general principle
of allowing a minority of voters to put a whole state, or even a senate
district, through an expensive and disruptive recall election of an official
so soon after that official was properly elected in a regular election. Most
terms of office are either for only two or four years. Why would it be
good public policy to change these constitutionally determined terms
simply because a group of voters who did not have a majority are unhappy?

In nearby Minnesota, another peculiar election structure has intruded itself
into the 2012 elections. At the Republican state convention, Ron Paul
supporters elected enough delegates for Paul to send to the GOP national
convention twice as many or more than Rick Santorum who won the
non-binding Minnesota primary earlier in the year. The Paul state convention
delegates were selected at precinct caucuses around the state, caucuses that
usually have 1-3% of a political party's voters participate. Thus, fringe or
weaker candidates have often been endorsed in both Democratic and
Republican conventions, and then were subsequently defeated in the state
primary or the general election.. The most recent example of this was the
current Democratic (called the DFL in Minnesota) Governor Mark Dayton who
defeated the DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate in the 2010 DFL primary,
and went on to be elected. (Governor Dayton, to his credit, had long opposed
the precinct caucus system in Minnesota.) For almost 40 years, the precinct
caucus system has enabled fringe interest groups, none of whom could muster
a majority in their own right, often to sabotage, in effect, the two major political
parties at election time.

National political observers have watched precinct caucus states disrupt
presidential campaigns. Perhaps the most notable example occurred in 2008
when Hillary Clinton basically ignored most of the states who chose their
delegates at precinct caucuses, and soon fell mortally behind Barack Obama
who organized them and won most of their delegates. Mrs. Clinton then went
on to win most of the large primaries, but it was too late. If there had been only
primary states, Mrs. Clinton almost certainly would have been nominated, and
would today be president of the United States. (I know a lot of Democrats who
then and now would have preferred that outcome.)

The basic principle here is not about political personalities, however. The
underlying principle is the fundamental ideal of majority rules that has guided
U.S. politics since its founding. (To be sure, at the beginning there was not
full voter suffrage, but today there is, so the principle is even more important
than ever.)  Nor is it about Democrats or Republicans. Both parties suffer from
the "mischief" I have mentioned. If the Wisconsin governor were a Democrat
facing a recall by a Republican special interest group, I would be saying the
same thing, and supporting the Democrat.

There are many ways to tamper with the fundamental principle of one-person,
one-vote, and today there are many who would, in the name of idealism, put in
electoral structures than enable small groups who cannot win a majority on
their own to impose their will on an unconsenting majority. Two of the worst
examples of this kind of political mischief already exist in the recall and the
precinct caucus system.

Not just Republicans, but even Democrats and independents who did not vote
for them two years ago, thus have a stake in Governor Walker and his colleagues
surviving next week.

Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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