Since her loss in Iowa, Senator Hillary Clinton has been an outspoken critic of the caucus system, saying that the limited time allotted for voting disenfranchises too many workers who are on the job during those hours.
It seems in Nevada Clinton has had a change of heart.
Last week the powerful, 60,000 member Culinary Workers Union Local 226 chose to endorse Senator Barack Obama after “fierce lobbying” from the three frontrunners. Two days later, the Nevada State Education Association – with ties to the Clinton campaign in its leadership – filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to shutdown nine casino caucus at-large sites created to allow both union and non-union shift workers to vote during the workday. (On any given day, it would be difficult for these workers to participate without these caucus sites. It will be even more difficult during the busy Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.) According to the Washington Post, the system was created last March with input from the presidential campaigns and – as meeting minutes reveal – “several of the parties to the suit were there and approved of the process.”
Karen Finney, Director of Communications at the Democratic National Committee, said to me, “The state party submitted their delegate selection plan last May and it was available for public comment…. They also had a thorough review process in the state and informed the campaigns months ago about their plans. A key goal is to ensure the broadest participation by eligible voters. The state party has worked hard to increase the number of caucus locations throughout the state, there are some 520 public locations statewide, and there are more caucus locations than there were polling locations in 2006. The at-large [casino] precincts are 9 percent of those locations [and] are open to all shift- workers within a 2.5 mile radius.”
This is the first time in the 2008 presidential race that the Latino vote will play a significant role in an electoral outcome, and nearly 40 percent of the Culinary union’s membership is Latino. Estimates put the votes at the casino sites at more than 10 percent of the statewide total. According to the Los Angeles Times, at a union rally Obama spoke out against the lawsuit which would “disenfranchise the hard-working folks on the Strip…. You don’t win an election . . . by trying to keep people out. You’re supposed to try to bring them in.” He also said of the lawsuit’s timing, “Ever since I got the support of Local 226, the lawyers decided to get involved. The rules were OK when the other campaigns thought they would win the Culinary endorsement.”
Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, agreed that the timing and impact of the lawsuit are problematic. He told me, “The time to discuss the fairness of caucus sites is long past – you simply don’t want to reduce the number of places to vote or do a last-minute change if you want people to participate. Caucus turnout already promises to be distressingly low for representative outcomes.”
Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor who does voting rights cases (he’s also chair of Montgomery County for Obama and running to serve as a Delegate), told me that the case is without merit: “The Equal Protection claim in this case is silly and would be thrown out even if it hadn’t been raised in the eleventh hour in a transparently political way. The claim boils down to the argument that it discriminates against teachers and other professionals to set up polling places in casinos for people who work there since these employees then get an unfair advantage in access to the polls. On this curious theory, of course, it would violate Equal Protection for some people to live two miles away from a polling place while others live on the same block. The irony is that most polling places are in public schools [where Nevada State Education Association members work]! Setting up polling stations in workplaces where there are tens of thousands of voters who would otherwise be unlikely to vote is perfectly rational. It’s also a public policy that progressives should celebrate and duplicate, not try to thwart.”
D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of Culinary Local 226, also felt that the Democratic Party should speak out strongly to defend the caucus sites. As he said to the New York Times, “I never thought we’d have people in the Democratic Party try to disenfranchise women, people of color and large numbers of working people in this state. I am sure every single elected official in Nevada will renounce it, and so will the Clinton campaign.”
But no such luck.
Asked about the lawsuit on Meet The Press Clinton said, “The courts and the state party will have to work it out.”
“Not for us to decide,” Rory Reid, Clinton’s Nevada state chairman, told the Las Vegas Sun. “We just want the process to be fair.”
And Clinton campaign spokesman, Phil Singer, said in a statement to the Times: “We hope the courts and the state party resolve this matter. We will respect their decision and focus our efforts on running a strong campaign.”
Until this moment, part of “running a strong campaign” included speaking out on behalf of workers who were unable to make their voices heard at the polls. But now, as a lawsuit threatens to disenfranchise thousands of workers who will be unable to get away from their jobs to vote in their home districts, Clinton and her campaign remain conspicuously silent. This is especially disappointing because the Senator has been a proponent of comprehensive electoral reform in the past, cosponsoring good legislation that would improve voter protections and access, and make Election Day a holiday – all presumably to make more voices heard in our electoral process.
But now it seems Clinton only wants those voices to be heard if they will help her win. A campaign and its candidate who once took pride in the ability to “stay on message” has delivered a message to Nevadans that is loud and clear: winning is more important to them than our shared democratic values.