Reaching row K of Section 111 at the Time Warner Cable Arena was the goal of the computer tech working the Democratic convention in Charlotte late Wednesday afternoon.
He blew past the state delegations of Hawaii and Pennsylvania, taking two steps at a time, bound for the sign denoting the seating assignment for Ohio. There, former Buckeye State Governor Ted Strickland (D) stood next to a small table equipped with a laptop and a microphone. Strickland headed the Democratic party’s platform committee and stared across the arena at the confused chair of the convention, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D). Villaraigosa smiled nervously. Like actors on stage when someone forgets a line, Villaraigosa tentatively glanced at Strickland as though prompting him to say something.
In reply, Strickland stared blankly ahead at Villaraigosa, confounded as to what should happen next.
“Are you going to need to vote?” the IT guy asked Strickland. Helpdesk Man slid in front of the former governor, flipped open the laptop, fired it up and fiddled with wires snaking out the back.
Strickland ignored the IT guy because the moment to call for the vote had passed. As the computer geek toiled, the off-stage announcer summoned those in the arena to stand patriotically as Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas led the Pledge of Allegiance. Branford Marsalis followed Douglas by tooting a cool jazz rendition of the Star Spangled Banner on his soprano sax.
Political conventions are shows. So the show must go on. But the democratic process was as tattered as a meadow bludgeoned by a bush hog.
Democrats necessitated the Villaraigosa-Strickland exchange to alter their party platform. They wanted to amend previously stricken verbiage about “God” and declare that Jerusalem is the Israeli capital. The first version of the platform distributed on Tuesday left out God and Jerusalem. The omissions whipped people into a frenzy. Republicans blasted Democrats as “God-less.” A high-level Democratic source characterized the debacle as “self-inflicted.”
So Strickland and Villaraigosa set out to fix things on Wednesday. And how they went about it is emblematic of what many feel is wrong with America’s political system.
These quadrennial crucibles are designed to foster democracy. But there’s little voting any more. The roll calls of the states to select the actual nominees? You might catch them if you do shift work. Invaluable, prime-time slots are reserved for all-stars like President Obama, Mitt Romney, First Lady Michelle Obama and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Democrats delayed the roll call to formally nominate President Obama until after President Clinton’s lengthy, 49-minute speech on Wednesday. The process started at 11:32 pm ET and didn’t conclude until just before 1 am Thursday. Only a skeleton crew milled about the convention floor as Wyoming delivered the final slate of delegates to the president’s column. In Tampa the week before, Republicans skated through the process in the afternoon, long before most television networks hit the air with their coverage.
But there was common denominator at both conventions. Both parties extol the virtues of letting people’s voices be heard. But apparently it doesn’t matter if the voices are heard when the outcomes appear pre-determined.
At the GOP conclave, backers of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) tried to amend the convention’s rules. Republican party chair Reince Priebus and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) alternated wielding the gavel, putting the report from the convention’s credentials committee and the convention’s rules package to voice votes on the floor. A voice vote at a political convention is essentially the same as in the House and Senate. When it’s time to vote, proponents yell either “yea” or “nay.” The chair listens and, at his or her discretion, deems which side prevailed. But, there’s always a chance for an actual roll call vote. That’s where every delegate or state gets together and casts ballots. The outcome is numerically clear at the end of a roll call tally.
The GOP credentials committee barred the seating of many Maine delegates who supported Paul. The hall erupted into chants of “Seat Maine now! Seat Maine now!”
On the rules blueprint, Paul supporters wanted to make it easier to allocate delegates to him. When the vote hit, the verbose Maine delegates shouted no. The noes were clearly louder than the yeas. But it didn’t matter. The gavel rapped and things were approved despite the cacophony of protestations. The Maine delegates scolded the dais, shouting “fraud” and “Point of order! Point of order!”
There was no roll call vote – much to the dismay of the Ron Paul revolution.
The tempest in Tampa was a warm-up act to the chicanery in Charlotte a week later. Democrats faced a firestorm of criticism which forced the party to revamp its platform.
“I am here to attest and affirm that our faith and belief in God is central to the American story and informs the values we’ve expressed in our party’s platform,” Strickland told the hall on Wednesday. “In addition, President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and our party’s platform should as well.”
Villaraigosa asked delegates to okay the platform changes by voice vote.
“Is there any further discussion?” the Los Angeles Democrat asked the arena. Delegates in the rear of the room roared.
But that didn’t halt Villaraigosa from ignoring the obvious.
“Hearing none, the matter requires a two-thirds vote in the affirmative. All those delegates in favor say aye,” he instructed.
Some in the crowd shouted aye.
“All those delegates opposed say no,” Villaraigosa continued.
A barrage of noes and boos filled the seating bowl, flustering Villaraigosa. After all, how can one audibly discern what two-thirds of an undetermined crowd sounds like, yea or nay?
The mayor then asked the throng to vote twice more with their voices. The outcome on each occasion was unclear. But the TelePrompTer at the rear of the room betrayed Villaraigosa. My astute colleague Serafin Gomez snapped a photograph of the screen with his iPhone that demonstrated the outcome was pre-rigged. The TelePrompTer read “In the opinion of the chair, two-thirds having voted in the affirmative…” That meant the Democrats had settled this long ago despite vigorous objections on the floor.
Now here’s what’s interesting. An audio analysis of each of the three votes reveals that the first vote favored the yeas by 1.2 decibels. The nays prevailed on the second vote by .9 of a decibel. The yeas won again on the third tally by 1.2 decibels.
But this vote carried a two-thirds requirement. So it’s nearly impossible to determine whether the voices from the floor ever crossed the two-thirds threshold in decibels. That’s why it’s up to “the opinion of the chair” to choose the winner. And if the presiding officer rules one way and delegates don’t like it, they can usually demand a full-blown roll call vote. That’s why someone dispatched the IT guy to the Ohio delegation, thinking there may actually be a bona fide vote at a political convention.
“The way they handled it was a surprise. The process was so fast,” complained Majid Al-Bahadi, an Arab-American delegate from Seattle. “They shoved something down our throat and said accept it.”
Gus Mansour, an Arab-American delegate from Lynnwood, VA also faulted the party’s tactics.
“We did not know about this. We were stunned and said no,” Mansour declared. “Bullying us is not going to work.”
Mansour was particularly upset because Democrats often bill themselves as the party of inclusion. Yet he said he was embarrassed that his party would ramrod an issue through on the convention floor. Dissenters were talking to the parliamentarian about their options. But once a vote is done, chatting up the parliamentarian is about as useful as arguing with a baseball umpire after a call.
Strickland wasn’t keen to discuss what went wrong with the platform in the first place. Aides rushed him out of the arena as two reporters tried to buttonhole him. Strickland would only say that the change “was not an error” and described it as a “clarification.”
Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter couldn’t shed much light on why Democrats had the platform pickle in the first place when interviewed by Fox’s Martha MacCallum.
“I don’t know,” replied Cutter when MacCallum asked who struck the Jerusalem language from the original platform.
On the opening day of the convention, Villaraigosa and other top Democratic officials reveled in the opportunity to showcase their party.
“After Tampa, now we’re going to show them how it’s really done,” bragged Villaraigosa. “We’re going to show that we’re the party of openness and opportunity.”
Convention Secretary Alice Germond boasted that “all of our platform and rules and credentials are open. Every single delegate will have a copy of our platform on their chairs when they walk into the convention hall tomorrow. Nothing secret. Nothing behind the back.”
Of course at the same press conference, a reporter asked convention CEO Steve Kerrigan what sort of weather might force them to move the president’s speech from Bank of America Stadium to the indoor venue.
“The event on Thursday night is going forward rain or shine,” said Kerrigan.
In her opening remarks to the convention, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) declared that the convention would be “the most open and accessible political convention in history.”
Throughout the week, various Democrats seized on “right to vote” issues. Democrats are concerned that Republicans could curb access to the ballot box for some. That could diminish Democratic electoral chances.
“One of our most basic rights, the right to vote, a right that we fought for and won, is under attack,” warned Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) during her speech.
“They’re engaged in a systemic effort to disenfranchise millions of African-Americans, Hispanics and senior citizens as they try to undermine the fairness of this election,” fretted Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D).
Here’s the problem: People of all political persuasions suspect the political system is fixed to start with. That’s one of the reasons some rebelled against health care reform. They charge (sometimes unfairly) that lawmakers drafted the legislation “in a back room.” They’re suspicious that policymakers colluded with the pharmaceutical industry to forge the package. And many are baffled by the arcane parliamentary process Democrats used to finesse the legislation to passage.
This distrust is one of the fundamental problems facing the nation. It’s one of the reasons why many don’t vote.
Political conventions have been slick, Broadway productions for decades. But parties must still attend to a modicum of operational business. So it’s hard to blame people for their skepticism when both sides talk about inclusion and openness – yet stumble on something as fundamental as voting at the most-venerable laboratories of American democracy. An actual roll call vote would unquestionably settle these issues and instill confidence in the process. Otherwise, the parties are left with empty rhetoric and the dubious result of a voice vote.
On Wednesday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spoke to reporters at the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast in Charlotte. She talked about attending her first convention as a 12-year-old with her father in Chicago in 1952. As a souvenir, Pelosi’s parents gave her a nameless, stuffed donkey. They planned to name the donkey after the yet-unknown nominee: Adlai, Estes or Averell. Adlai was for Illinois governor and eventual nominee Adlai Stevenson. Estes referred to Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) who emerged as Stevenson’s running mate. Averell was Averell Harriman who later became governor of New York. Back in those days, delegates actually decided things at political conventions. And they did it by voting.
Conventions were often contentious then. That’s why they didn’t allow anything the least bit confrontational to be settled by an inconclusive voice vote.
Including the naming of a stuffed donkey souvenir.