Life is a Mystery

18 June 2017

This is what democracy looks like?

I am still processing yesterday’s Saint Paul and DFL convention, and I must say the intervening day hasn’t made it feel any better. We say that the party process helps us to select the best candidates, those who most reflect our DFL values, those with the best chance of winning office. I’ve heard people argue against the primary process because it allows the unwashed masses to dilute the party. Personally, I value primary challenges because they strengthen our candidates. Still, I understand the value of party endorsement, and conventions are a relatively participatory way to produce an endorsement.

What really bothered me yesterday was that the convention appeared to be designed to make sure that no endorsement for the mayoral candidate resulted. In particular, the rules committee proposed a set of rules that would have made an endorsement very difficult. The convention body selected an alternative set of rules, more likely to result in an endorsement, offered by a minority report from the rules committee. But then that alternative set of rules was further amended so that the convention ended up with a hard stop time of 7pm.

As anyone who’s been around this kind of process for a while realizes, a hard stop is simply an encouragement for those who want no action to spend their time postponing matters. The adoption of the 7pm stop time virtually ensured that the convention would end up deadlocked and without an endorsement. And that is what happened.

The only point of holding a convention is to endorse a candidate. Designing a convention’s rules to avoid endorsement is designing a convention to waste everybody’s time. The first four hours of yesterday’s convention was spent arguing about the rules. In all the convention spent 10 hours of people’s time on a beautiful Saturday doomed to fail in it’s purpose. That was a disservice to everyone. Yes, I realize we did endorse three school board candidates in a single ballot. But the big race was the mayor’s race, and our failure to endorse in that race is an indictment of the convention process.

The Saint Paul DFL was not courageous enough to allow even its own small democratic process to play out in its convention. I believe that the adoption of ranked choice voting, along with appropriate technology to count those ranked choice ballots quickly, is a better alternative for democracy today than primaries. But even with ranked choice voting, an endorsement is a valuable asset for a candidate. We should be ashamed of ourselves in the Saint Paul DFL, that we could not design a convention that was able to produce an endorsement. I am particularly ashamed that we wasted so much of so many people’s time, and left them with such a bad taste of what our democracy looks like.

3 Responses to “This is what democracy looks like?”

Cara / 19 June 2017 / 12:48am

Some say that this keeps the field more open, since the DFL endorsed candidate pretty much always wins in STP, and it makes ranked voting more meaningful. I heard there were a lot of uncommitted delegates who kept shifting their votes to avoid an endorsement.

Eric / 19 June 2017 / 7:07am

There is no need to shift support to avoid an endorsement, one can simply vote for “no endorsement” instead. I would have no problem with a convention settling on “no endorsement” as the “winner,” but that is not what happened. We simply did not finish our job. We left before any option was selected. That is a failure, not a design.

In the end, the “no endorsement” vote had risen to 18%. It is very possible that it may have risen to the 60% threshold given time. Or the convention might have deadlocked more naturally, which also happens. Either of these results would not have been as troubling to me.

What troubles me is that the rules were designed to evoke this result and then the debate over the rules took over one third of the time we had. That is a sign of planning to waste people’s time. It is a sign of bad faith. As an active DFLer, that bothers me a lot.

Eric / 19 June 2017 / 11:18am

A few more details about the rules proposed by the 2017 Saint Paul DFL rules committee.

The key elements of these rules was that only candidates with less than 10% of the vote would be dropped from contention and the convention would have a hard stop at 5pm.

Here is what MPR said about the lack of an endorsement:

It’s a historic result: the party has picked a candidate for decades, even after grueling political combat that once stretched into the early hours of weekend endorsing conventions. The most recent open mayoral seats in St. Paul, in 2001 and 1993, took no less than 11 ballots to decide a candidate.

In other words, the rules in the past allowed much longer conventions. Enough time for delegates to seek compromise and gnaw on the party’s values.

As for the one other open convention I’ve experienced, it was in Senate District 64 and operated under a very different set of rules: the drop threshold increased by 5% on each ballot until only two candidates remained. There was no deadline on the convention as a whole.

I cannot find the rules of past city conventions, but given the MPR report, I suspect they were much more like the SD64 rules than the rules proposed by the 2017 rules committee.

Given that the chair of the SD64 rules committee was the same person who chaired the 2017 rules committee, I cannot help but suspect that the change was quite intentional. This was an effort to force the convention to a no endorsement result for the first time in decades.

I have my qualms about the whole caucus/convention/endorsement process and am an advocate for ranked choice voting which provides a much more open process for citizens. But even so, I am incredibly disappointed in the folks in my party who worked behind the scenes to ensure that we would not provide any guidance to voters this year. I believe this was a mistake. It may or may not change the outcome of this election, but it is a terrible way to build the party.

Eric Celeste / Saint Paul, Minnesota / 651.323.2009 / efc@clst.org