Why Seating the Michigan and Florida Delegations Would Disenfranchise Voters

Anyone following the 2008 Democratic presidential primary has heard about the kerfuffle over Michigan and Florida delegations. I’ll review the history briefly below, but more importantly, I am going to argue here why seating the Michigan and Florida delegations would in fact disenfranchise voters, indeed those voters who listened to their party, and not the other way around. I haven’t heard this argument almost anywhere in the mainstream media (one exception below), nor really even in the land o’ blogs, which confuses me as the argument is fairly straightforward.

So, way back when in 2007, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) laid down some ground rules for the primary process. First off, Iowa’s caucuses. Then, New Hampshire’s primary. Then, Nevada and South Carolina, to provide some regional balance. All 4 states are smallish, to make campaigning possible for a less well-funded challenger, and SC and NV added some racial diversity as well as geographic. After February 5, any state could have its primary or caucus at any point up to about mid-June. To incentivize states to go a bit later in the process, the DNC offered states an increase in the number of delegates they would receive for going a bit later (as much as 30% if I recall correctly). All of these changes were designed to smooth out the primary process without preventing a candidate without national name recognition from having a chance.

But two states decided that these changes weren’t good enough. More specifically, the Democratic party (and state legislatures) of two states decided this wasn’t good enough. Michigan and Florida violated the DNC’s rules and moved up their primaries. Michigan and Florida scheduled contests in January and, in response, the DNC stripped the states of their delegates and told candidates not to campaign there. Each of the candidates (including Clinton and Obama) agreed, and all the major candidates except Clinton had their names removed from the Michigan ballot. None of the candidates names was removed from the Florida ballot because, as far as I can tell, election law did not allow the removal of a name that late. Also, none of the candidates campaigned in the two states, and except for a few stray cable TV ads aimed at national markets, no ads were broadcast either.

Then, Democrats, independents and Republicans in each state went to vote. In Michigan, Democratic voters had the choice between Clinton, undecided, or a few minor candidates. In Florida, all the candidates were on the ballot. There were no get out the vote efforts by campaigns, flyers, advertisements, debates, town halls, rallies, etc. Additionally, the DNC had already informed these voters that their vote would not count, that nothing was up for grabs. These events were not elections but coronations – with no campaigning and no advertising, the candidate with the biggest name recognition unsurprisingly took the most votes.

Many Democrats stayed home, while others (and independents) voted in the Republican primary. Notably, the Republican party had taken the less severe measure of stripping the two states of half their delegates, which in effect gave the states exactly what they wanted as Republicans flocked to campaign in these large states. One way we can see the impact of this faux primary is in the turnout numbers. Florida and Michigan are both considered swing states – although Michigan has voted Democratic in the last several presidential elections. In either case, these states have had fairly Presidential close races in a number of recent years, with Florida in 2000 being one of the closest and most contested elections in history. Across the rest of the country, when Republicans and Democrats have had primaries on the same day, Democratic turnout has usually dwarfed Republican turnout. Not so in Michigan and Florida – in Michigan, about 594,000 people voted in the Democratic primary. About 867,000 people voted in the Republican primary. The story in Florida is much the same – about 1.68 million Democratic voters to 1.92 Republicans. The numbers were probably closer because, in Florida as opposed to Michigan, all the candidates were in fact on the ballot. Nonetheless, the stark differences in turnout number in MI and FL as compared to the rest of the country (in NH for example, 284,000 voted in the Dem race, only 231,000 in the Rep race).

All I want to demonstrate with these turnout numbers is this: fewer people voted in FL and MI in the Democratic primaries than would have if they’d counted. This claim should not be particularly contentious. On the other hand, the implications of this claim are pretty incredible: seating the Florida and Michigan delegations based on these unreal contests would disenfranchise the Democratic voters who believed their parties. Senator Clinton has argued that not seating the FL and MI delegations disenfranchises those states. The media has more or less taken this argument at face-value, uncritically. Senator Obama’s campaign has responded will pleas to just follow the rules – sensible enough, given the complexities of the rules and the legitimacy problems already inherent in the process, changing the rules in midstream to benefit one candidate would make it all look even worse. But almost no one has spoken out about the people who were really disenfranchised.

One recent exception is Al Sharpton:

Rev. Sharpton is traveling to Florida today to compile lists of residents who skipped the January contest because they thought their votes would not count. He plans to have those residents sign affidavits saying they would be disenfranchised by the seating of the Florida delegation, in the event the Democratic Party allowed that to happen.

I couldn’t agree more.

Lastly, I want to advance one more criticism of the media coverage of this kerfuffle. You will often hear repeated that, because of their importance in the general election, not seating MI and FL’s delegation would be suicidal – in effect, the Democrats need MI and FL. Fair enough. But what does this have to do with the primary and delegate process? The media, and Senator Clinton’s campaign, may claim that voters in MI and FL will be pissed off because their delegates will not be seated but so far I have seen not a single piece of evidence supporting that claim. I have seen no poll numbers, protests, or petitions. Voters in those states may well be frustrated, but perhaps we can be charitable and assume they will target their frustrations at the state Democratic Parties who so seriously botched their respective primaries. Additionally, those voters who most care about the Democratic party and its process are going to vote Democratic anyway. I really doubt the independents will care or even remember this snafu 6 months from now, after months of actual campaigning.

So, to sum up, reject the media framing of this situation as a debate between two legitimate positions – one emphasizing rules and the other enfranchisement. That dichotomy is false, and Senator Clinton and her campaign should be mocked as desperate for trying to pull such a stunt as this and, in reality, trying to disenfranchise those voters who actually believed in their party and its process.

P.S. And for those of you who think a re-vote is impossible, given the temporal and financial restraints, I recommend looking over this plan proposed by political consultant Mark Grebner for a vote-by-mail in Michigan. The plan would be cheap (the campaigns would pay for voter lists, this subsidizing the whole election), secure, and quick.



  1. Max

     /  March 10, 2008

    Notably, the Florida Democrats didn’t have much of a choice: their state government is Republican controlled, and the party doesn’t have any experience holding an independent caucus. When the Republicans moved the primary date up, the Democrats had to go with it.
    This doesn’t mean those delegates should be seated, but maybe it lends some weight to the argument that the national party should pay for a Florida revote.

  2. On the other hand, it gives no excuse to Michigan, where the Democrats control one of the two houses and the governor’s mansion. Additionally, in Michigan, past presidential primaries have been party-run (called caucuses but looking like primaries), and the state-run primary has been meaningless. So, we’ve got no excuse here in Michigan.

  3. Nathan

     /  March 11, 2008

    An interesting take one of my friends had on the issue is that the Republican and Democratic parties are PRIVATE (not public) organizations, essentially national clubs, that mimic the electoral process with the primaries.

    Most of the mimicking of the electoral process in the primaries happens at taxpayer expense.

    So to say it’s disenfranchising the voter to ‘redo’ the primary is actually a false statement since the ‘vote’ that’s made is essentially a taxpayer survey on who the candidate should be.

    Still thinking on that point of view myself, but it seems to ring true.

  1. Why Seating the Michigan and Florida Delegations Would Disenfranchise Voters
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