Several weeks ago we were presented with the surreal specter of two iconic figures from the civil rights movement battling each other in the name of "democracy."
Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, wrote a letter in early February to the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) demanding that the delegates "elected" by voters in the Michigan and Florida primaries be seated at the Democratic Convention. Otherwise, he argued, "millions of voters" would have their votes discounted, thus undermining the democratic process. A few days later Al Sharpton argued in his own letter to DNC chair Howard Dean, that it would be a "grave injustice" to seat the delegates from Florida and Michigan. What's going on here?
We are nearing the end game in the protracted struggle to determine who will be the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States. The race is nearly even between Sens. Obama and Clinton, although, depending on who's counting, Obama has a 100-plus delegate lead. Given the governing rules and the math, two things are crystal clear:
First, it will be difficult — though not impossible — for Sen. Clinton to close the gap by winning pledged delegates in the few remaining contests.
Second, and more important, neither candidate can reach the number needed, even if they won all the remaining contests. It would take an extremely unlikely series of landslide victories for one of the candidates to win outright. Thus, the Democratic party is faced with an ugly scenario of the election being resolved in a manner that is glaringly undemocratic.
One way of resolving this mess relies on the superdelegates—the unelected Democratic Party senior leaders who makeup 20 percent of the delegates to the convention—to make the final decision. In a way, this would be poetic justice for the party. Ever since the nomination of George McGovern as the party's nominee in 1972, party officials have repeatedly attempted to change the rules so that the democratic process, the voices of ordinary people, would be less decisive in choosing the nominee.
Indeed, political scientist Nelson Polsby wrote a book two decades ago which was very specific on the issue. The rules needed to be changed, argued Polsby, to reduce the influence of "unreasonable" elements in the party such as newly empowered blacks and white women. Thus, the superdelegates were created as a check on the democratic process and black influence in particular. Should the superdelegates decide the nomination, the rigged process will work in the way it was originally intended. But it may also have the unintended effect of so enraging core constituencies that they boycott the general election.
A second scenario on how this mess gets "resolved" is that the process drags on to the convention in Denver; no candidate wins on the first ballot, and the convention becomes wide open as delegates are then free to vote for whomever they wish. This is a scenario the party wishes to avoid even more than the first. The Democratic Party would most likely emerge from the convention very badly splintered.
The Republicans would no doubt gleefully crow about the anti-democratic process that subverted the "will of the people," resurrecting, with some justification, the hoary image of the smoked-filled rooms that used to epitomize the anti-democratic nature of the presidential nominating process.
These two distasteful options explain the sudden intense focus on Michigan and Florida. Because these states violated the party's rules by holding their contests too early in the primary season, their delegates are not supposed to be seated at the convention. Indeed, Obama's name was not even on the Michigan ballot, and none of the major candidates campaigned in Florida. That said, Clinton "won" both primaries and both she and the Democratic leadership in each state want those delegates seated.
It is true that counting the delegates in Florida and Michigan could reduce the chance that either of the above unsavory convention scenarios occurs. But figuring out some fair way to do that is tricky. Conducting full primaries in the necessary period [the campaign officially ends in early June], would be both logistically problematic and very expensive. The national party wants to save its money for November, while the state parties are pleading poverty.
Just as the Obama campaign justly objects to having delegates seated from "contests" where they were not able to compete, the Clinton campaign objects to conducting caucuses which would clearly benefit Obama. The stakes are large and thus we see black civil rights leaders getting pulled into this mess even when it is clear that black interests would best be democratically served if real primary contests were conducted.
It is incumbent upon fair-minded democrats (small d!) to insist on procedures that allow voters' voices to be fairly heard, no matter how difficult inconvenient, or expensive the solution may be. The democratic process must be allowed to play out, even if the outcome reflects the will of the most progressive and democratic wing of the party in spite of the party bosses' best efforts to rig the system.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.