On Democracy and Disenfranchisement: Sanders Camp Has the Wrong Fixation

On Democracy and Disenfranchisement: Sanders Camp Has the Wrong Fixation

The day after Bernie Sanders' dramatic loss in New York's Democratic primary, one of his campaign's top generals, Tad Devine, asked a stunning question on Rachel Maddow's show on MSNBC: "Is it really fair to say that we should use votes as a measure [of support in the Democratic primary]?"

While you are doing a double-take, here's the point that the man whose law firm was hired by Monsanto and architect of the Superdelegate system in the Democratic primaries was making: Caucus states award delegates too, but their raw vote totals are both more difficult to determine as well as far smaller in number than the vote totals in states with primary ballots. Because caucus turnouts are abysmal (and often cannot be reported accurately) compared to balloted primaries, Devine argued, it would be unfair to use vote totals as a measure or support. It's unfair, Devine says, to point to the fact that Hillary Clinton is now 2.7 milion votes ahead of Bernie Sanders.

Devine made a more sobering point than he knew.

Take Minnesota and Missouri for example. Minnesota awards 61 pledged delegates, Mississippi 58. Both are open contests, meaning independents can influence the Democratic choice. Although delegate-wise the states are roughly equivalent in the Democratic contest, and although both states had what was considered high turnouts for the nominating contest, more than 620,000 people voted in Missouri's Democratic primary election, while fewer than 200,000 took part in Minnesota's Democratic caucuses. This disparity actually understates the gap between primaries and caucuses, as numerically speaking, Minnesota's turnout was among the highest in caucus states.

There are a lot of reasons turnouts in caucuses are so pathetic. A great deal of people - especially ethnic minorities and limited English proficiency citizens - are hard pressed to often pre-register, show up at the caucuses, and spend hours making the case for their preferred candidate. People can be shut out if they do not show up by start time, but showing up early will not allow one to indicate their preference earlier than the start time and be on their way. Voters cannot cast absentee ballots or vote early, putting anyone who cannot spare hours of time on caucus day out of luck. In some places a voter can leave earlier than the end of the caucus, but they are left with no way to know for sure that their preference counted. The process is time consuming, intimidating (even if a certain candidate's supporters weren't known for being in-your-face, loudmouth intimidators) and antithetical to a key hallmark of democracy: secret ballots.

Have a child and cannot afford an undetermined number of hours worth of child care? Too bad, you can't afford to vote in a caucus. You have work at the time of the caucus? You're out of luck. You'll be traveling when your state caucuses? It will cost you a plane ticket and your voice in the democratic process. You don't want to make your choice public for reasons of work, neighbors or another reason? You don't count. You are less English-proficient than it takes to follow all the pre-caucus instructions and caucus day instructions? You need a Dolores Huerta to be on your side, and even she can get shouted down with chants of "English only!" If you are a college student from a relatively affluent background who usually doesn't have class at 6 pm on weeknights or Saturday mornings (or better yet, skip it!), however, you can pack the caucuses. Welcome to democracy.

Yet, somehow for many Sanders backers, a far more insidious display of disenfranchisement is... closed primaries. Even though they have tried to turn a backlogged voter database management issue in Brooklyn into a conspiracy of party bosses to defeat Sanders, the key complaint of the Sanders camp and his supporters has revolved around is the nature of a closed primary, party primaries where only voters registered with a party are allowed to vote, even though switching one's party registration - or registering to vote with the party you want to choose the standardbearer for - is a lot easier than the roadblocks of caucuses, somehow we are asked to believe that asking Democrats to pick the Democratic nominee is the grave injustice.

There's actually a simple explanation for why the Sanders campaign and his backers are outraged at the prospect of closed primaries but are absolutely jubilant at the results of the caucuses: Bernie Sanders is winning caucuses. Tad Devine even bragged on Rachel Maddow's show that the Sanders campaign hopes to pick up more delegates than voters in the caucuses determined on caucus days, as the caucus process slowly works its way up from voter levels to county levels to state levels.

Speaking of depriving the people of their voice, here's another issue the Sanders and Clinton campaigns have had a difference of emphasis on. While both candidates are nominally in favor of restoring voting rights for ex-felons who have paid their debt to society, Clinton has been both more vocal and more active on the issue. As a senator and candidate for president in 2007, Clinton introduced the Count Every Vote Act, which was co-sponsored by her then-rival Barack Obama. Another then-colleague of hers in the Senate, independent senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders did not cosponsor Clinton's legislation to restore full voting rights to ex-felons. In fact, the earliest federal legislation to restore voting rights that Sanders seemed to have signed onto was filed in 2015, according to findings even by his strong supporters.

Now, I'm not a revolutionary, but the fact that 2.2 million African Americans would be eligible to vote (and in all likelihood their votes would overwhelmingly go to Hillary Clinton) were voting rights to be restored for all felons once they have served their time may have something to do with the Sanders' campaign's relatively subdued lip service to voting rights restoration. After all, a lot of these votes would be in the "deep south" demographic Bernie Sanders admits to getting "murdered" in. And a lot of them would be registered Democrats, scaling "closed primaries" even more in favor of Hillary Clinton.

But no. The shameful disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans and other people of color through our state-by-state criminal justice systems is not the big problem with our democracy. The horrendous barriers on participation in caucuses are not the issues making people cry out for democratic reforms. The big problem with our democracy, if you listen to Sanders supporters and his campaign, is closed primaries. The reason should be clear by now: to Sanders and his supporters, the processes that result in a Sanders win are tolerable, but ones that lead him to defeat are the gravest of injustices.

Here's something that should never be a measuring stick for the democratic process: whether your candidate won or lost. That dreaded Democratic party that so many Sanders backers like to hate so passionately is the one filing lawsuits against state election laws that could disenfranchise young voters, a key Sanders demographic, and they have been doing so long before the primary season got underway.

It's good to have a discussion about the voting process, and even the nominating process, and to what extent nominating processes should be a result of direct democracy. But in that discussion one cannot simply pretend that the undemocratic rules helping their candidate don't matter. That does not show that you are concerned about voting rights. It shows that you are concerned about winning at any price, and about acting the part of the victim when your candidate falls short.

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