Home 2018 Elections A Few Thoughts on the VA-10 Democratic Nominating Process

A Few Thoughts on the VA-10 Democratic Nominating Process

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The Virginia 10th CD Democratic Committee appears to be doing its job as it should, considering various methods of nomination for the large field of Democrats vying to take on Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) next year. And that’s no matter what ridiculous hit pieces in Politico (see demolition of that story here) have to say. Or what an over-the-top, false, poorly written email by one of the VA-10 Democratic candidates, Lindsey Davis Stover, had to say.

For instance, Stover’s email claims, “There is a loophole that would allow the members of the Virginia Democratic Party Committee to choose our nominee through a caucus with limited voter participation and forego a primary election where every
voter has a voice.” First of all, it’s not a “loophole,” it’s a fundamental part of what committees do. Second, it’s not “the Virginia Democratic Party Committee,” it’s the Virginia 10th CD Democratic Committee. Third, while I prefer the higher turnout of primaries, I also like having Democratic nominees selected by a majority of Democratic primary voters, and that is unlikely to be the case in VA-10, given the fact that there are several well-funded, serious candidates running (meaning that the winner could end up with just 30% or whatever).

Unfortunately, Virginia does not allow use of ranked or “range” or “instant runoff” voting in primaries. Nor does Virginia have voter registration by party, which means that Republicans can vote in Democratic primaries. So let’s not pretend that one nominating method is perfect and the others are all evil or something. That’s just absurd. Personally, I’d love it if the 10th CD Democratic Committee could opt for a primary using ranked/range/IRV, but unfortunately it can’t. The more I think about it, the more I lean towards a regular primary over a “firehouse primary,” but not because I think a regular primary is a perfect or pure method by any means, simply because I find it difficult to see how a series of “firehouse primaries” would work in such a large, sprawling, and in many cases rural district.

With that, here are two posts I think are well worth sharing. The first is from VA 10th CD Democratic Chair Zach Pruckowski, who is – from everything I’ve seen – a straight shooter and hard worker doing the job he’s supposed to be doing — holding a transparent, public discussion about the pros and cons of possible nomination methods for the large field of 10th CD Democratic candidates (a good problem to have, by the way; in the past, there was little if any competition for this nomination, as it was seen as a long-shot for Democrats at best).

Democratic Friends,

There’s been a lot of discussion and controversy about our most recent meeting, so we’d like to take the opportunity set the record straight about our most recent meeting, and about where discussions of the nominating process stand.

The Virginia Democrats’ State Party Plan instructs the 10th CD Committee to pick the nominating method for the Congressional race and gives us 4 options to pick from – a Convention, an Assembled Caucus (Mass Meeting), an Unassembled Caucus (Firehouse Primary), or a State-Run Primary. All of these methods have been used for different races in the 10th CD over the last few years, and there is no “default” choice – every time there’s a nomination, some committee somewhere discusses which method to use, and votes.

In the past, these discussions haven’t been fully transparent to our activists, volunteers, and voters in the Democratic community, and that’s something we’d like to change. Because we believe in leading by example, we held a 45 minute discussion at our public meeting on Saturday where we debated the pros and cons of each method. Then we decided to go back to our local Democratic communities and talk to our fellow activists before voting at our November meeting (which again, will be open to the public). We also wanted to do more research, because that public discussion raised questions we don’t have immediate answers for. We’re currently only 6 days into that two month process.

There’ve been some claims that the race in the past has been a primary and we’re taking that away. The last three or four cycles have in fact been conventions, and none of them were contested.

We’re going to have a lot more info for you on the pros and cons of each method over the coming weeks. We’re all volunteer leaders who’re also working hard to elect our 2017 candidates, so we ask for your patience if it takes us some time to do the research and writeups and pass it along to you – we’re doing our best to be transparent and frank with you, our friends and fellow Democrats.

This committee isn’t made up of “party elites”, we’re all volunteers and activists. We all make phone calls and knock on doors and show up at protests. We go to the same local committee and group meetings you do. If you’re an active Dem volunteer in VA-10, you’ve probably met at least one of us. Feel free to talk to us there and give us your thoughts.

Respectfully,

Zach Pruckowski,

Chair, 10th CD Democratic Committee

Now, here’s a post by the 10th CD Democratic Committee, explaining the various nomination methods, as well as some of the major pros and cons of each. Nice job, again, by Zach Pruckowski – keep up the good work!

“Nominating Process Selection” is generally not a hot topic of conversation, and frequently these sorts of things aren’t heavily discussed or publicized. The goal of the committee in doing this publicly and having such a long public commentary period is to shed some light on these sorts of processes because the 4 options for nominating method are the same across the state for Democrats. The choice we make for the Congressional race is the same choice your local committee will have to make for City Council in 2018 or County Supervisor in 2019.

Virginia law gives the Democratic Party the ability to determine the nominating process for partisan races. Essentially, the Democratic Party has a “ballot line” and can determine who gets it. The Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA) has a governing document called the “State Party Plan” (SPP), and one of the big things the SPP does is outline which committees are in charge of which nominations and how they can determine those nominations. This is a publicly available document on the DPVA website, but it’s a 40-page legal document. The long and short of it is that CD committees pick the nominating process for Congressional races, and your local city/county committee picks the nominating process for races like Supervisor, City Council, or Treasurer. State Legislature is a bit more complicated, so we’ll talk about that a bit closer to 2019.

The State Party Plan also gives four options for the committee to pick. Those four options are the State-run Primary, Convention, Assembled Caucus, and Unassembled Caucus. An Assembled Caucus is sometimes called a “Mass Meeting”, and an Unassembled Caucus is sometimes called a “Firehouse Primary”. In this post we’ll quickly run through a description of each type:

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The Primary is the simplest to explain – we notify the State Board of Elections that we’d like them to run a primary for us, and they handle the rest. The filing requirements and deadlines are set by the state, and the primary is run by the usual election officers at your precinct on the second Tuesday in June. It’s straightforward and accessible (two really big PROs), but also relatively inflexible. The filing requirements and plurality voting method are set in stone, as is the timetable – candidates MUST file by the end of March, and the nomination isn’t decided until mid-June. A common question is “can we do a state-run primary, except with a runoff/earlier than June/with a later filing deadline?” and the answer, unfortunately, is no.

The Firehouse Primary is also fairly simple to explain and similar to a state-run Primary – there are voting sites, run by Party volunteers (ideally election officers moonlighting), and the voters go, sign in, and cast a paper ballot. Then the Party volunteers (overseen by campaign observers from each side) count up the ballots and a winner is declared. Because this process is party-run, there’s a lot more flexibility – the process can be held as early as the last weekend of April, filing requirements or deadlines can be adjusted to suit the specific circumstances, and alternative voting systems like Instant Runoff can be used. The downside is that because it’s party-run, it’s smaller-scale. There are generally fewer voting sites (maybe one per 10-12 precincts) and they’re open for 3-8 hours on a Saturday instead of 13 hours on a Tuesday. It’s also harder to absentee vote – while the Party often tries to have a few in-person absentee opportunities, you can’t easily match the longer time frame (and mail-in opportunities) that the state-run elections offer. We’ve used Firehouse Primaries before in situations like State Senate special elections or County Supervisor races, and in those situations, we got solid participation but it took a lot of logistical effort.

The Assembled Caucus/Mass Meeting is basically what it says on the tin – a large meeting is held, which any Democrat in the district can attend. You sign in, sit down, and then at that meeting, you’ll hear from each candidate and cast your ballot. As with the Firehouse Primary, there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of deadlines, requirements, voting method, etc. The downside is that participating in a Mass Meeting means driving to the meeting location and staying there until it’s done (which could take from 30 minutes to a couple hours). For a race for city Sheriff where everyone’s local, that’s one thing, but for a Congressional race in a district that stretches from McLean to Stephens City, that’s a much larger ask.

The fourth option is a Convention. The Convention process is fairly complex and often misunderstood. For a convention, each locality has a certain number of delegate slots, and the folks elected to these delegate slots meet at the Convention to decide the question. Individual Democrats sign up to be delegates for their locality, and if there are more signups than there are allocated slots, then a caucus is held. Theoretically, this could be an Assembled Caucus (Mass Meeting) but more likely it’d be an Unassembled Caucus (Firehouse Primary). Then Democratic voters come in and vote for the *delegates* they want to win. When an issue is lightly contested (for instance, who gets to go to the national convention), local caucuses are often unnecessary. But for a heavily contested question (like a nine-way Congressional race) it’s reasonable to assume every locality will be holding a caucus. You end up with similar logistical concerns to a “Firehouse Primary” as well as the participation concerns.

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Our hope is to do more of these explanatory posts, especially as we debate and weigh the various nominating methods. Please feel free to weigh in either here or with your local 10th CD members about what sort of factors are important to you in this decision-making process, and definitely please ask questions if there’s something you want to know about any of the options or our process for deciding.

  • Max Shapiro

    If its absurd to say one method is better or worse than the other, then how do you explain the attacks DPVA makes on RPV every time they nominate someone by anything other than a primary? Just pure partisan politics?

    • It’s not “absurd to say one method is better or worse than the other,” the key is acknowledging that there are advantages and disadvantages to different nominating methods in general, and also in different/specific circumstances. As for the RPV, it seems like there’s plenty of internal disagreement on nominating methods, including things like “slating” and other issues, that have pitted Virginia Republicans against each – without any help from Democrats.

  • Anonymous Is A Woman

    It is unfortunate that what should have been a relatively routine decision became mired in controversy because one candidate went off the rails and categorized it as some kind of devious loophole to suppress voter participation. If that candidate was actually familiar with the process, she would have realized how off base and misleading that characterization was. That, btw, is an argument for people not familiar with the district and not familiar with how Virginia politics works to get more active and get to know their local party and their local district before just jumping into a race.

    • Yeah, that candidate’s reaction was a major turnoff…

    • dave schutz

      We clearly have a difference of opinion here between 8th CD Dems and 10th. Me, I’m with the 8th! The 8th CD Dem Convention passed a resolution in this year’s session calling for local parties to use primaries instead of caucus in almost all cases (https://www.va8thcddems.org/wp- content/uploads/2017/05/Primaries-Instead-of-Caucuses-FNL.pdf) and they said “The Democratic Party is built upon the fundamental principles of inclusion, transparency, openness, and equal access to the ballot for all voters. Under the Democratic Party plan each jurisdiction has the discretion to select its candidates by either a primary, an assembled caucus or an unassembled caucus. As a limitation on this choice, if an incumbent office holder was selected by a primary, the officer holder can demand a primary when running for re-election. In several jurisdictions across the Commonwealth of Virginia, local Democratic organizations opted to use a caucus instead of a primary in a local election to determine the Democratic candidate for a general election. Although the government funds primaries, local Democratic organizations bear the cost and volunteer resources necessary to conduct caucuses. In addition,
      the decision to opt for a caucus over a primary has been viewed as being conducted in a less than transparent manner, and inevitably draws criticism as favoring party insiders.
      A caucus frequently results in substantially lower turnout among eligible voters than is the case with primaries. Unlike a primary which has extensive opportunities for in-person and mail-in absentee voting, virtually all caucuses require in-person voting during designated hours at one or a few locations. In contrast, primaries are held at the regular polling place in each precinct. As a
      result, a caucus disproportionally excludes young people, minorities, working people, party outsiders, and independent-leaning voters by imposing stricter limits than a primary as to the time and location in which eligible voters may exercise their franchise. Because a primary will have a higher voter turnout than a caucus, it is more valuable in party building. Following a caucus, the party will receive fewer participant names than from a primary, so there are fewer voters identified as Democrats to target in the general election get out
      the vote efforts.
      Therefore, be it resolved that: the 2017 Eighth District Democratic Convention recommends the Virginia State Democratic party and the local Democratic committees conduct primaries whenever possible.”

      The 8th District Dem convention also said that the law should be changed so that parties have a choice between first-past-the-post and ranked choice in precinct based primaries (https://www.va8thcddems.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Instant-Runoff-Voting-IRV-FNL.pdf). This was put in as an 8th CD resolution in large part because of backing from the Arlington YDs,

      Arlington Dems had stated they were doing a caucus primary instead of a precinct primary despite the depression of voter totals to which it would lead because the caucus primary enabled them to use ranked choice voting. At the time, Maggie Davis of the Arlington Young Democrats, was quoted in ArlNow “such a system does not help more young voters get involved in the nomination process. “It is incredibly difficult for a young person likely working multiple jobs with very little flexible free time to access the caucus…There’s no in-person absentee voting, no absentee voting and the caucus only happens on certain times.””

      In its discussion of the 2014 ranked choice caucus which selected Alan Howze as the Dem nominee, FairVote quoted Kip Malinosky: “ACDC Chairman Kip Malinosky said the ACDC switched to IRV because “we want to encourage learning about other candidates. It helps empower Democratic voters and it encourages positive campaigns.” When candidates are interacting with the supporters of other candidates for second and third choices, they benefit from finding common ground with potential voters rather than alienating them with divisive tactics. This creates winners who are in touch with the electorate and advance to general elections with a strong mandate from the party.”

      You can have it both ways if the law is changed to enable ranked choice voting to be used in precinct based primaries – the text of the 8th CD resolution included: “.. current Virginia law does not allow jurisdictions to use IRV in primaries. In both a primary or a caucus, absent IRV, the person with the most votes is the party’s nominee even if that candidate attracted a small portion of the total vote and represents views incompatible with a majority of the party or of the voters in the general election. When many candidates are seeking the party’s nomination, or there is a low voter turnout, the process may not serve the interests of the party or of the voters..”

      • notjohnsmosby

        The law isn’t going to get changed anytime soon, so saying you can have it both ways is very incorrect.

        • dave schutz

          Notmozz, you are absolutely right that ranked choice voting in a primary is not on offer for this candidate selection. I am going to bring in a fairly recent case in Arlington where a caucus was used and it bit the Dems from behind: the 2014 nominations for County Board, as recounted right here in Blue Virginia:
          “The following statement is from the Arlington County Democratic Committee…video to follow shortly. Congratulations to Alan Howze, and also great news for streetcar supporters, as the two candidates who supported the streetcar project won a combined 70% of the vote (also note that Cord Thomas specifically argued that this election was a referendum on the streetcar). :)UDPATE: Ben Tribbett has a fascinating analysis which finds that “in the full electorate, Howze defeated Thomas by an even more convincing 2,318 (65.5%) to 1,219 (34.5%),” and that “even with Thomas getting more first choice ballots over Fallon, that gave Peter Fallon a 1,919 (56.9%) to 1,453 (43.1%) win over Cord Thomas.” Finally, Alan Howze received the fewest “last place votes,” while Cord Thomas received by far the most. ” This was even a ranked choice vote caucus!

          Since Independent-former-longtime-Reep Vihstadt went on to win the election by seventeen per cent, we have experimental evidence that the caucus failed badly to capture public mood! Tribbett’s was exactly the right kind of analysis to make, but the caucus electorate was small and skewed.

          So my best argument is: caucus voting gets a much smaller number of voters than precinct primaries, and experience has shown that it may not be anything like a representative sample of the Dem electorate. This means to me that we are not assured that our strongest candidate is the candidate in the
          general, and in a purple district like the tenth, it’s important.

          Ranked choice, though a side issue because not on offer in a primary until Virginia election law is changed, would be desirable because it protects against a ‘Trump-like’ candidate who has a not-majority level of support when several more party-mainstream candidates split the majority.

  • In 2014, after Frank Wolf retired, the GOP 10th Congressional District Committee held a Firehouse Primary to nominate our candidate. Over 13,500 people voted in this very successful party-run process on a Saturday in April.

    Out of six candidates on the ballot Barbara Comstock was declared our nominee.

    John Whitbeck, the 10th District Chairman at the time, deserves accolades for an outstanding job few could duplicate.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Well done, Lowell– with clarity and reason, which are not in abundant supply these days.

    • Thanks. Did you see the DKos post by David Nir that drew so much criticism?

      • Andy Schmookler

        Yes.

  • Michael Beer

    There is one additional advantage to a rank voting format. The personal attacks and vitriol are vastly reduced because folks are competing for 2nd and 3rd round votes of candidates who are dropped because of limited support. Therefore not only will the nominee be supported by the a majority of the dem voters, but the campaigns will be more policy oriented and the nominee will come out less damaged in most scenarios.