JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Elections And Things

Some politics today. Caucuses, conventions, initiated measures and great PR work.

Caucuses and Conventions

A letter writer in The Forum on Friday morning expressed his displeasure with Tuesday’s North Dakota caucuses saying, “I can remember when we voted in a primary election by using one side or the other of the ballot to vote our party preference. Republicans and Democrats stood in line to vote together. Tuesday’s goofy caucus/primary was a blatant violation of the nearly sacred principle of the secret ballot. Both parties, in the interest of traditional democracy, should apologize for the travesty and return to the straight primary.”

Well, of course, you remember that. We just did that in 2018, and we will do it again in 2020, in just three months, on June 9, when we hold our North Dakota primary election. But, just like in the primary elections in years past, we won’t use that election to select our presidential candidates. We’ve ALWAYS done that in caucuses, at least in my political lifetime, which is pretty long. It’s just that the caucuses were different this time around.

Here’s how it used to work, for those who don’t remember, or those who never really participated in them.

The process of determining who our state would support as the nominee for president of the United States of each party began with a district convention for each party in each legislative district. I’ll talk about how the Democrats did it because those are the ones I went to. I think the Republicans did it about the same way.

At the district convention, the district chair would call for nominations for preference caucuses. So, for example, someone would nominate a Bernie Sanders preference caucus and someone else would nominate a Joe Biden preference caucus. There was always an uncommitted caucus for those who couldn’t make up their mind. Then the district chair would say, “OK, everybody for Bernie go over to that corner, everybody for Joe come up to this corner, and everybody uncommitted just stay where you are,” or something like that.

Then they would count heads. And the district chair would say “OK, we get to send 30 delegates to the state convention. There are 20 people in the Bernie caucus, 20 in the Joe caucus, and 10 in the uncommitted caucus. So you Bernie folks, you get to elect 12 delegates to the state convention. Same for you Biden folks. And you uncommitted folks get to elect six.

So then each caucus would then elect the number of state convention delegates they were allotted to represent the district at the state convention.

At the state convention, usually just a few weeks later, all the Bernie delegates from all the districts would gather in one corner of the hall. All the Biden delegates would gather in another, and all the uncommitted delegates would gather in the middle. Based on their proportional strength, each of the caucuses would then elect delegates to the national convention. Those delegates would pledge to those who elected them from their caucus to vote for their caucus’s preferred candidate on the first ballot of the national convention.

As for the primary, well, that was generally a beauty contest as far as presidential politics goes. Here’s why. A little (maybe too much) history.

Beginning in 1908, North Dakota held a primary election in June. We were pretty much a Republican state. But that was a bit deceiving. The Nonpartisan League always filed its candidates in the Republican column in the primary, and often won, and so they appeared as Republicans on the general election ballot in November. Many, if not most, were much more liberal than regular Republicans. Art Link, for example, was elected five times — in 1946, 1948, 1950, 1952 and 1954 —a s a Republican.

In 1956, the League began filing its candidates in the Democratic column, and more and more Democrats began getting elected. By 1964, the newly merged Democratic-NPL Party won a majority in the North Dakota House of Representatives, and in the 1965 Legislature, they elected Art Link as speaker of the House. That year they passed legislation to move the primary election to September, and even though they had fewer than half the Senate seats, they convinced enough Republicans to join them and so the bill passed and the Democratic-NPL Gov. Bill Guy signed it into law.  I’m not sure why they did that, but I like the idea, as I wrote here a few months ago. Keeps the campaign season much shorter.

So from 1966 to 1980, the North Dakota primary was held AFTER the two national parties had nominated their candidates for president at their national conventions, which usually took place in August. That’s when the preference caucus system I just outlined was adopted here, so we could send delegates to the national conventions reflecting the wishes of the party members from our state.

It got all mucked up in the last couple of elections, really mucked up this year. I’d (selfishly) like to go back to the old way. Here’s why. I think my party would be stronger if we rebuilt it by empowering attendees at district conventions and state conventions to choose the candidates, just like they choose their candidates for the Legislature and statewide offices.

But here’s another reason. It didn’t work very well this year. Kind of a good news/bad news thing. Oh, it got a good turnout. More people participated in the Democratic caucuses this year than ever attended all those district conventions. But 15,000 people voting at just 14 locations strained the system. Second, it essentially disenfranchised most rural people. Democrats who live in Marmarth (both of them) would have had to drive 100 miles to Dickinson to cast a vote. The same was true all over the state. It took a really die-hard effort for most rural folks to vote. And if they had shown up, the lines would have been even longer.

That favored Bernie Sanders, of course, whose base is young people who live in urban areas. It’s pretty much why he got more votes than Biden. I’m actually surprised Biden did as well as he did, considering that obstacle, and the fact the Bernie volunteers ran a great campaign and Biden really didn’t have one here, that I could see. I got numerous texts and phone calls from the Bernie folks but none from Biden. The Bernie folks figured this thing out, and they needed to because they needed a piece of good news on an otherwise bleak night. They proved that good campaigns matter. Good for them.

So I want go back to the old way — district conventions, preference caucuses and spirited contests and debates at state conventions. Way more fun. When it’s fun, people will engage. That’s what the Democrats need. Being a one-party state is not good for anyone.

And that Forum letter writer can go vote June 9 and cast a secret ballot for anyone he wants to. It just won’t mean anything as far as the presidential election goes. Never did.

Initiated Measures

Some of the same people who sponsored the Ethics Commission measure in 2018 are back at it with a new “election reform” measure this time around. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I would have liked to see.

Its primary purpose, from what I can tell, is to take the gerrymandering out of the legislative redistricting process, which is going to happen after the 2020 Decennial Census is over. There’s a nationwide movement to try to put an end to gerrymandering right now — every state will be drawing new congressional and legislative district lines in the next two years. These North Dakota folks are right on top of this.

The measure does several things.

It gives the state’s nonpartisan Ethics Commission, which in North Dakota really hasn’t even got its feet under it yet, the authority to draw new legislative district lines. That’s a good thing because the North Dakota Republicans have really screwed the Democrats in the last couple of reapportionment exercises. I could cite a number of examples, but I’ll leave that for another day.

The other good thing is it divides each Senate district (however many there are — the Legislature still gets to decide that) into two equal House districts, which is really good news for rural North Dakota, bringing their legislative representatives a lot closer to home. For instance, under the current 47 district scenario, there will in essence be 94 separate district House races.

That’s about the only other real substantive change. I don’t foresee a newly formed Ethics Commission being very bold in drawing up new lines that differ very much from what it is now. It can accomplish that by just adding a few new districts in areas where there has been population growth.

Under this measure, the Legislature will have no say on district lines — it doesn’t get to vote on them. Whatever the Ethics Commission —f ive citizens who have no experience at this kind of thing at all — decides, will be what we get. One of the kind of humorous things I see here is the sponsors included a provision that the plan cannot be approved unless it has a unanimous vote of the Ethics Commission. That could take a while.

I’m also getting a kick out of the very first two sections of the pretty long measure. These two:

Section 1. Help Our Heroes Vote.

In order to provide military-overseas voters with ample opportunity to vote, on or before the business day preceding the 60th day before an election, the secretary of state shall transmit ballots and balloting materials to all covered voters who submit a valid military-overseas ballot application. This shall apply for all elections covered in N.D.C.C. section 16.1-07-19.

Section 2. Secure Our Elections.

All voting machines must produce a paper record of each vote cast. Within 60 days of an election, the secretary of state shall audit all results of one or more randomly selected precinct in each legislative district. Within 120 days of an election, the secretary of state shall publish a report containing the results of the audit conducted under this section.

How could anybody vote against that!?!?! Those folks are pretty cagey, throwing in a couple of real feel-good provisions right at the top. If I were running their campaign, I wouldn’t even talk about the rest of the measure.

The only thing I don’t like about it is the open primary idea they have included, where political parties don’t matter, and the top four candidates advance to the general election. Then, in November, instead of just voting for the person you prefer for each office, you rank the four candidates — first choice, second choice, third choice, fourth choice — and then there’s a cumbersome process for determining the winner, unless one candidate gets a majority of the first choice votes. I think it’s confusing to most of us voters, and I don’t want elections to be confusing. I want a winner and a loser. Period. I think that provision has a chance of causing it to fail.

And I don’t want it to fail.  Because it has plenty of good stuff in it. And because I can’t stop giggling at the thought of taking the legislative reapportionment process away from those Republican legislators who have drawn the lines to make sure they never, ever get defeated. Ooooh, are they going to be pissed.

I have one little problem, though. I live a long ways across town from my favorite legislator, Bob Martinson. I need to figure out how to stay in his district. I need to have a talk with a couple of Ethics Commission members, I guess.

Finally, Public Relations

Some words of praise today for an old friend of mine, Dale Wetzel. Dale and I were next door neighbors for a few years, way back, when in the days he was a crack Capitol reporter for The Associated Press. Dale retired from that job a few years ago and is now the Public Information Officer for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. An honorable job. Most elected officials have one of those. I was one for a few years, about 40 years ago.

Ostensibly, the PIO’s job is to keep the public informed about the activities of the office. In the process, of course, you keep your boss’s name in the news, aiding in re-election efforts.

In that respect, Dale’s done an amazing job. It’s an election year, and Dale’s boss, Kirsten Baesler, has been in the paper almost every day the past few weeks. Mostly on the front page. You can’t buy that kind of coverage. It takes a great PR guy to get that job done. Congratulations, Dale.

2 thoughts on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Elections And Things”

  • John Burke March 14, 2020 at 2:31 pm

    I’m so old that there were no caucuses up to the time I moved away (1969). We just had primary and general elections. I’m not sure why the caucuses came into being, but maybe because it was not uncommon for members of one party to cross over in the primary and vote for a candidate that they thought would be easier to beat in the general election. If you think they’re more fun then I guess that’s a plus.

  • Ed Maixner March 16, 2020 at 6:49 am

    Out here on the East Coast, I was surprised to see that Bernie Sanders won the North Dakota caucus preference. Thanks for making sense of it.


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