Sunday, June 21, 2009

Should Parties Be Able To Expel Members

Should Parties Be Able To Expel Members?

Political parties get a bad rap. A dying generation of pundits like David Broder bemoan "excess" partisanship, while President Obama desperately tries to get a tiny handful of Republicans to sign onto his plans and make them "bipartisan." We're taught by the "objective" media to "vote for the person not the party."

But in the post-civil rights era, as the Republicans have gone South literally and figuratively, American political parties have come to mean more than they ever have in our history. They now have at least some level of ideological consistency, and they provide necessary voter cues and structure to the political system. I've also found them, at least locally, to be a meritocracy. As a newcomer to Iowa City two decades ago, I was brought in and brought along, and the Democratic Party played the main role in making me the Respected Community Leader (ha!) I am today.

But political parties are hybrid creatures, part private organization and part public entity. The party, as a body, is under a crazyquilt of 50 state laws and has relatively little say in its membership or candidates.

In some ways, that's a good thing. Back in the bad old days, some Southern Democratic parties defined free association as Whites Only. But two recent legal cases raise questions about how much say a political party should have in defining itself.

The Suffolk County, New York Conservative Party is attempting to expel registered voters. (Tangent: New York law lets candidates run on multiple ballot lines, and several small parties exist mainly for this sort of cross-endorsement, called "fusion.") The back story: the police union was in a dispute with the sheriff and packed the small but significant party to try to deprive him of the Conservative line.

Small parties are extremely vulnerable to that sort of hostile takeover. Back at the turn of the century, the Pat Buchanan Brigade successfully outvoted the remnants of Ross Perot's Reform Party, prompting the lone Reform elected official, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, to leave the party. The Reform lawsuits are still flying over that one, even though the stakes are little more than the last $15 in the party bank account. Last year in Florida, Republicans ran "moles" as Green Party candidates, hoping to draw votes away from Democrats.

"New York election law has for decades contained a provision making it possible for a qualified political party to disenroll individual voters," writes Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, "if the party can show that the voters joined the party even though they are not in sympathy with its ideas."

Iowa is officially considered a "closed primary" state, meaning that you have to be registered with a party to vote in its primary. But other states have deadlines or limits on party changes, sometimes as much as a year. In Iowa you can change party on the spot.

Here in the People's Republic, folks openly refer to the June Democratic primary as "the real election" for courthouse offices. Literally hundreds of Republicans, including some names anyone in town would recognize, cross over to select the Democratic Party's candidates. In fairness, it sometimes works the other way, most notably in the 1994 gubernatorial primary between Terry Branstad and Fred Grandy. But Branstad himself called that a once in a lifetime event.

Now, of course, under present Iowa law people have every right to do that. But the legal right doesn't make it right.

It's not only party membership that's a live question. "My issue is with the way candidates can appropriate the name of a private group," said Wahkiakum County, Washington Democratic Party chair Krist Novoselic, who recently protested the state's primary law by filing (then quickly withdrawing) for local office under the label "Grange Party."

"The Grange is a non-partisan organization that does not offer candidates for public office," wrote Novoselic, who is also a Grange leader and a grunge leader; he used to play in a band called Nirvana. "The Grange may spend time and money to try and make this clear through media communications. However, the Grange cannot rebut my party preference on the public ballot, the only place a voter is guaranteed to see my claim."

Novoselic underscores a problem that local old-timers will recall: the embarrassing 1992 candidacy of "Democrat" Jan Zonneveld. He was, shall we say, eccentric, opposed many key Democratic Party issues, and endorsed Perot over Bill Clinton. But he'd collected the signatures, no one else filed, and as far as the law was concerned he was the Democratic nominee for Congress. We were stuck with the guy and had to come up with some very creative distancing strategies, as well as figuring out who to write in.

It would be interesting to see how New York's party expulsion law and Novoselic's proposed changes in party labeling would play out if applied everywhere. Should Joe Lieberman, after losing the Democratic primary and endorsing John McCain, get to call himself an "Independent Democrat?" And Republicans seem bent on purging all hints of moderation from their party, yet Jim Leach and Colin Powell still get to call themselves Republicans. How do you distinguish between the vanishing breed of pure independents, who simply want to vote for a candidate, and cynical interlopers into a party?

That's a tough call. People have sincere changes of heart. One of the greatest Democrats I know first ran for partisan office as a Republican, before joining the Democrats in Watergate-driven disgust.

But people don't have multiple, back-to-back changes of heart. If you hosted the caucuses at your house, or gave the party thousands of dollars, or asked "how soon can I change back" when you get your ballot, you really shouldn't be choosing the other party's candidates.

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