Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why political parties matter

There is no greater perjorative these days than partisan; you could get a Catholic to denounce a Papal edict if you could convince him it was partisan politics. Ivory tower types of the left and right alike regularly boast of how they “vote the man, not the party”, and periodically posit new voting systems that would weaken or eliminate the effects of political parties. Of course, any working professional in government- or even an educated layman who understands how the world works- knows that anyone talking like that is a fool, even if he is a Harvard professor... and yet somehow, this has become the social zeitgeist.

Well, we here in Indianapolis have just received an object lesson in such foolishness, one that will cost us dearly before it’s done. Yesterday was our Primary Election- and the biggest debacle in state history. How big? well...
1. 5 polling places never opened at all. This is even worse than it sounds, as one of those was in the suburb of Southport, which only has two!
2. 45 polling places opened late- most around four hours late, but several up to ten hours late- out of the twelve they are open!
3. 100 more of the polling places that did open had one, two, three or more of the following problems: none of the personnel were trained, they were just volunteers pitching in; wrong ballots or no ballots delivered- meaning that even though the poll was “open”, voting was not possible for 6 to 10 hours; no keys or wrong keys for the voting machines; voting machine non-functional for a variety of reasons.
4. Today, as the official legal tallying of the election was to begin, no supervisors for the 40 workers showed up; so they were all sent home- at full pay- to try again tomorrow.
Newspaper articles about the election are here and here .

What lead up to this disaster? The party out of power- Democrats in this case, though it could well have happened to Republicans shut out as long as the Democrats were- spent all their time, money, and resources getting big names elected instead of party-building. First they won the mayor’s office, then a majority of the City/County Council... then when they won a majority of the votes for Secretary of State in Marion County, by State Constitution that gave them control of the elections as well. Therein lies the problem... Lots of money and clever consultants can get a man elected; but only a political party can govern. That was the Marion County Democratic Party’s mistake; they got the keys to power without a grass-roots organization or a machine in place. The party running the election has to supply the county with 917 Inspectors (the trained, legally responsible election officer), 1,834 trained Clerks and Judges, and hopefully 917 elected Precinct Committeemen who can supervise all that, make sure it comes off. (The other party must supply clerks, judges, and committeemen as well) They only came up with 700 Inspectors, and nobody knows how many of the rest of the list were available. (the loss of the legally responsible Inspector renders the rest moot) The only thing we can be sure of is that they didn’t have the Precinct Committeemen either; otherwise they would have stepped up and taken over for the missing Inspectors.

This lack of Committeemen is potentially troubling in another way. If an elected official dies, or is thrown in jail, or otherwise cannot fullfil his duties, who replaces him? In Indiana, his successor is chosen by a vote of the Precinct Committeemen of the same party. Suppose the mayor were to die tommorrow? There is literally no mechanism in place to replace him- first the County Democratic party would have to convene and appoint a bunch of Committeemen, and then hope they all show up to vote!

My point to all this is not to run down the Marion County Democratic Party- I’m sure they recruited plenty of people; the problem is that the only way to tell if your recruits are reliable is to see if they show up, and this time the party had a run of bad luck. In future elections, those who did show up will be highly rewarded, and those who didn’t will be shunned like lepers.

No, my point is to make people understand that the country is not run just by elected officials, or even by the paid government employees; it is run by millions of volunteers, who are coordinated by the political parties. Just to run the Indianapolis elections require 6,419 poll workers, plus the gophers to fetch their lunches, etc., on top of the legal government officials! When you sneer at political parties, you are sneering at a poor clerk, working 12 hours straight to run that election, receiving only a $50 per diem for food and babysitting. And that’s just elections- when you sneer at partisan politics, you are sneering at tens of millions of volunteers all over the country, doing all the strange, ad hoc jobs that must be done to keep society running, but are uneconomical to hire government staff for.

Many people are proud to have participated in democracy because they voted one year in four for President. Those who have given to or worked for a candidate give themselves special airs... I say those things are the minimum necessary to consider one’s self a full citizen! I say that the election debacle was not the fault of the poor clerk, or the County Democratic Party; no, the blame lies with the fact that out of a population of a million, the election failed for a lack of 150 Inspectors! It is the people of Indianapolis who should be ashamed- and any citizen anywhere who has not taken his turn volunteering.


Chalicechick said...

OK, theCSO is the one with the job that is liberal about vacation time, so he's the pollworker in the family (though CC is usually good for supplying his meals. One time he was sick and she brought him chicken soup. All the little old lady poll workers LOVED it.)

But in VA, I don't think these jobs are partisan ones. You can be a "poll watcher" for either party, but what theCSO does, check people in and show them how to use voting machines, they mostly have folks the county pays a hundred bucks for the day. Now there is still a volunteer mindset, but my understanding is that it doesn't have much to do with who is in power.

I know that theCSO has done it under governors of both stripes.

But anyway, I will draw his attention to this thread.


Joel Monka said...

It's the same here that these are not partisan jobs, in that during the election you are supposed to be doing the state's work, not campaigning... but it is the political parties who recruit the people for the state. The law requires that there be workers from both parties present, so even if recruited directly by the election board they would have to be vetted by the party anyway.

VA is generous with the pay. Here- at least as of three elections ago when I quit in protest (after 30 years, long story) only the Inspector got as much as $100- the rest of the poll workers got $50. Considering that's for 12 hours labor- by law you're not permitted to leave the poll once open- and for the Inspector, realistically, more like 14-16 hours, there certainly is a strong volunteerism element.

Robin Edgar said...

Oh I am pretty sure that "cult" and "psychotic"" are greater pejoratives than "partisan" Joel. . .