The best thing that could come of new Democratic presidential primaries in Florida and Michigan is the message that Americans need not accept illegitimate or inconclusive elections. That was once an accepted principle in America: when irregularities plagued New York Congressional primaries in the 1960s and ’70s, they were redone; when recounts failed to settle the 1974 New Hampshire US Senate race, another vote was held.
Sometimes elections don’t work, for all sorts of reasons. When this happens, democratic values and common sense demand a new vote. That was the right response, counseled by former Senator Bob Kerrey in 2000, when butterfly ballots and chad pregnancies denied thousands of Floridians a chance to have their votes count in the presidential race. Similarly, in 2006, after dysfunctional machinery in Florida’s 13th District appeared to disenfranchise thousands, there were calls for a revote. Unfortunately, these sound proposals never gained traction, either because party insiders thought they could find a fix among existing ballots or because they were simply unwilling to slog through another election. Democrats can’t afford to make the same mistake in addressing what’s gone awry with this year’s nominating process.
It may be satisfying to point fingers at the misdeeds and missteps that have left the Michigan and Florida delegations in limbo. For years, national party leaders ignored complaints from Michigan officials about the stranglehold the small, very white and mostly rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire maintained on the nominating process of a party that relies on people of color and urban voters in big states to win elections. But when Michigan and Florida leapt ahead of the Democratic National Committee’s schedule, they callously disregarded DNC moves to diversify the process by sanctioning early contests in Nevada, with its substantial Hispanic population, and South Carolina, where African-Americans are major players. Then-front-runner Hillary Clinton gamed the system by leaving her name on Michigan’s January 15 ballot after other candidates withdrew and by traveling to Florida for campaign-related events on the eve of a January 29 primary in a state where contenders had pledged to avoid campaigning. Everyone knew that if Clinton secured the necessary votes to be nominated, she would order the convention to seat delegations assembled to reflect the Michigan and Florida results. Conversely, if Barack Obama established clear dominance, he would force a compromise. But now it looks as if neither campaign will be positioned to prevail in credential fights that could disrupt this summer’s convention.
An unexpectedly competitive campaign, which could be decided by a handful of votes on the convention floor, makes the unresolved question of how to seat 367 Florida and Michigan delegates potentially definitional. The answer could determine not just the identity of the nominee but party prospects in the November race against John McCain. Democrats find themselves in an untenable circumstance: if Clinton’s camp and superdelegate allies seat delegations “won” by her in illegitimate pri- maries, Obama would be punished–denied a nomination that could have been his–for playing by the rules. Clinton cannot credibly contend in November if she is seen as having manipulated the process to defeat a more popular candidate. Conversely, if the delegations are denied seating, millions of voters in key states will be disenfranchised, and McCain will spend the week of the Democratic convention campaigning on that very issue in Florida and Michigan. Neither scenario is a winning one for Democrats. Nor is the clumsy “fix” of selecting delegates with caucuses, which attract a fraction of the turnout for primaries. And be cautious about mail-vote proposals to choose delegations on the cheap; as Florida Congressman Bob Wexler says, experimenting could be an “unmitigated disaster” in a state that has never before held a mail vote. Florida and Michigan should hold real primaries that attract maximum turnout.
This may not be a mess of his creation, but DNC chair Howard Dean must come up with the right fix. He has to work with Michigan and Florida officials to organize and fund new primaries. And he must prod the embarrassingly reluctant Clinton and Obama campaigns to recognize that new primaries are needed to settle the race in a way that is seen
broadly as legitimate and strengthens the eventual nominee. Dean must also seek a permanent fix for what Michigan Democratic leader Debbie Dingell correctly identifies as a “broken” system that requires “real and fundamental change.” The Democratic convention should charge a commission with the task of establishing a nominating process that all states can–and must–buy into, reducing the undue influence of superdelegates and making other reforms that assure that Democrats embrace and encourage democracy.