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Giving the Texas Two-Step the Old One-Two

George Nassar's picture

Silly me -- and here I thought that the big floor debate in today's general session of the Texas Democratic Party convention would be over the race for state party chair.

...ok, that's not actually true. We've seen Dallas and Harris counties turn blue during Boyd Richie's tenure; as much hay as the issue made for a while, it didn't seem particularly likely that any real opposition would form as the convention progressed. Other than an early endorsement from the Progressive Hispanic caucus (one of three Latino caucuses at the convention, with membership primarily from Travis County), South Texas schoolteacher and state chair challenger Michael Barnes simply didn't have much buzz going for him during the convention itself.

Even so, I didn't think there would be this much of a street brawl over the two-step primary process that made national news in the last presidential cycle, first for its uniqueness, and later for a lawsuit brought by LULAC against it citing that it discriminated against the Latino vote in Texas. A minority report successfully passed out of the Rules committee which would take the second step out of the equation: primary caucuses would no longer be used to determine delegate allocation for primaries. The report failed on the convention floor by a nearly 5-to-1 vote, but not before some impassioned arguments on both sides.

The argument against the two-step is, as LULAC cites in its lawsuit, that it blurs the one-person-one-vote line by rewarding those who can attend a single meeting on a particular day after 7pm with a disproportionately larger share of the vote by merit of being able to attend the caucus. While LULAC names Hispanics as affected, often the argument will be made that this also discriminates against the elderly, single parents, the deaf, non-English speakers -- the sorts of already-underrepresented minorities that Democrats tend to defend.

The argument in favor of the two-step is primarily a party-building one. Kendall Scudder, who I work with on the Texas Young Democrats executive board, spoke from his experience as membership director of the College Democrats and VP of membership for the Young Democrats in stating that the two-step caucuses were clear and dramatic boosts to membership and the creation of new chapters in the Young and College Democrats. Another Democrat spoke about how she hadn't even been aware of the two-step process until she attended her precinct caucus, and now she was a precinct chair -- though it seemed to me that she accidentally made the argument against giving delegate-apportionment power to the caucuses, as clearly if she didn't know about it, her involvement couldn't have been because of it, right?


Here's the deal with this whole thing: as with most contentious issues, both sides are right. Both sides can point to potential problems that their particular method solves. Anybody that tells you otherwise is selling something. The question isn't one of who is wrong; the question is about whether the benefits each side sees can be achieved in a different way.

The issue of voter disenfranchisement due to inability to get to the voting location at a given date and time is one we've dealt with before. We have early voting periods so that potential voters can pick the day and time they vote. We have absentee ballots for those who can't make it due to inability to transport themselves. We provide ballots in different languages, assistants for those who can't fill the ballot out themselves, and even provisional ballots for those who aren't properly registered. Unfortunately, none of our solutions for this can remedy this problem in a caucus situation -- the nature of a caucus requires one to actually be in attendance, to engage with his fellow voter, and to advocate for his candidate in person.

Of course, these are the very strengths that the pro-two-step side would cite. And while it is easy to say that one could keep the caucus while taking away its delegate apportionment power, many would say that that would defeat the purpose of attending a caucus in the first place.

Now, while there was a strong push for caucus involvement in 2008, I don't know that the folks that were driven to the caucuses by the campaigns were that likely to end up participating in the party after that point -- at least, I would say that my experience in my home county wouldn't indicate that retention was anywhere near proportional to the original response. And while parties can always do more to retain those folks -- is there that much of a difference between outreach to those who show up at caucuses and to those who would otherwise be identified as likely Democrats by, say the VAN? I just don't think the results bear that out.

But even so, that doesn't directly address the concern of those in favor of the two-step. And that's where the difference in the two positions becomes the most clear: those against the two-step argue in favor of equal access to the vote and equal protection, while those for the two-step are simply looking for an incentive for folks to attend the caucus.

When we look at it this way, it seems clearer that, while we have a broad history of voter access to draw from to find a solution to equal access -- and the methods we'd draw from that would at first blush be ineffective in the context of a caucus -- the problem of finding effective incentives for attendance of caucuses other than delegate apportionment has gone largely unaddressed. Obviously, the problem isn't a trivial one; finding an incentive that is commensurate, basically, to more votes is a difficult task. But I'm hard pressed to believe that, were we to seriously examine the issue, there wouldn't be other situations where turnout and representation can be made to scale along with participation in the caucuses themselves, and those participants could feel empowered by attending without skewing the presidential candidate vote itself.

I don't know how the LULAC lawsuit will play out; it could turn out that the Texas Democratic Party's hand will be forced in this issue, and delegate apportionment will have to be separated from the caucus process. The equal protection argument is definitely there, and is one that would seriously have to be looked at under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

But whether or not it comes to that, the stridency of the arguments on both sides of the debate are indication that we need to seriously look at finding new incentives for participants in the caucus process. I doubt, after such animated arguments noting the increase in Democratic involvement from the caucuses, that anyone would argue that more incentives for attendance are a negative. And if this gets us to the point where we can cast aside the system that causes so much strife within the party and smacks of unfairness to so many people, all the better.

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I thought that I recognized the woman who said that she hadn't been aware of the two-step, but now is a precinct chair. If I am right, she was a delegate from my precinct to the County Convention two years ago, and has moved to a different County where she is now a precinct chair.

I don't know if it was the energy from the precinct and county conventions or the Obama campaign that propelled her to her current level of involvement. The precinct/county/state conventions that I have attended over the last 4 years (Caucus-based in NV in 2006 and Two-Step in TX 2008 and 2010) have been what has changed me from a democrat who votes a couple of times a year to a Democrat who knocks on doors and works to make a difference.

Definitely, the argument that

Definitely, the argument that precinct conventions are the (or even a) primary driver for Democratic enthusiasm in the state is one that, though commonly believed, is at best backed by anecdotal evidence and at worst has so many conflating factors that defending the idea isn't actually possible.

Trickier still is that nobody's talking about doing away with them -- they're talking about taking out the voting aspect. Obviously, there are folks that showed up to those caucuses that never got involved in Democratic politics again, and there are folks that showed up and got involved that would've gotten involved regardless of whether they got to vote in them. The question mark is the idea that there are folks that showed up that wouldn't have if they hadn't gotten to vote, but that also stuck around to volunteer for the party and make a difference in substantive ways. Do those folks exist? Probably. Do they exist in high enough numbers to have been noticeable? Who knows. And are those numbers high enough to justify ignoring the Equal Protection argument of those who feel disenfranchised by the process? That's the rub, isn't it?

Much easier to solve the problem by getting rid of the voting issue and therefore the Equal Protection argument, while finding other incentives for people to participate in the caucus process. Win/win all around.

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