By Josh Stanfield, Executive Director of Activate Virginia
Every presidential election year, the Democratic Party of Virginia holds a series of local caucuses, congressional district conventions, and a state convention – all in the lead up to the Democratic National Convention at the end of the summer.
But due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, Virginia Democrats have been forced to adapt by running unprecedented virtual caucuses and conventions across the commonwealth in 2020.
Adopting virtual caucus and convention processes is prudent, and as is always the case when designing new processes, challenges are bound to emerge. Here I’d like to point out some of these potential challenges, none of which are insurmountable. But first, the process – as tedious as it may be.
Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren have been allotted delegates to the congressional district, state, and national conventions based on Virginia’s March primary results. You can see the full delegate allocation here, but at the state level, here’s a snapshot:
Joe Biden: 1,379 delegates. Bernie Sanders: 574 delegates. Elizabeth Warren: 47 delegates.
These delegates are disaggregated to their CD and local levels. Localities who have more people pre-file for delegate seats than seats available hold caucuses to elect delegates to the CD and state conventions.
This weekend, in lieu of in-person local caucuses, there’ll be an online voting window for the localities having caucuses. That window is from 12pm on Saturday, April 18 to 7pm on Monday, April 20, and participants will have to enter unique identification numbers provided by the party in order for their online ballots to count.
After this voting window closes, each locality and congressional district will have a set of duly elected delegates representing the presidential campaigns. In May, the presidential delegations within any given congressional district come together for the virtual congressional district convention. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention as well as Presidential Electors are elected at the CD conventions, and there’s typically an opportunity to pass resolutions.
On June 20, the Democratic Party of Virginia will hold a virtual state convention, the business of which is to consider resolutions and elect National Delegates to the Democratic National Convention, members to the Democratic National Committee, and additional Presidential Electors. All state delegates representing the Biden, Sanders, and Warren campaigns participate.
(1) Full Participation
After the virtual caucuses this weekend, the DPVA will know who the elected delegates and alternates are to the virtual congressional district and state conventions. But what happens if some of those seats are empty?
When I ran for National Delegate in 2016 in CD 1, barely half of our Sanders delegate seats were filled in the local caucuses. Under normal conditions, people could show up on the day of the CD convention, fill out a form, and fill empty delegate seats, regardless of whether or not they were elected at a local caucus. This is how we filled the entire CD 1 Sanders delegation that day.
Likewise in 2016, after the CD conventions, there were still empty delegate seats for both Sanders and Clinton as the state convention approached. The day of the state convention, people showed up in person, filled out a form, and were allowed to fill available delegate seats and participate.
This year, however, it’s not clear how – or even if – empty delegate seats will be filled at the CD or state conventions. We know that there will be dozens of contested caucuses this weekend, which means some people will lose their races for delegate. Will those people be completely excluded from further participation, while delegate seats remain empty in their CDs?
(2) Fairness & Campaigning
In the past, candidates running for the various positions at caucuses and conventions had an opportunity to speak before the voting body. Now, with fully digital caucuses and conventions, there needs to be a fair way to facilitate campaigning for these positions.
How can individuals running in the local caucuses this weekend campaign? I know of very few cases in which candidates for delegate to the CD/state conventions have access to the names, email addresses, or phone numbers of caucus participants.
Likewise, candidates running for National Delegate or Presidential Elector at the congressional district conventions will need contact information for the state delegates who’ll be voting in their elections.
And at the state convention, candidates for Democratic National Committee, Presidential Elector, and At-Large National Delegate will need voter contact information in order to campaign.
I’m pretty sure the DPVA is creating a process to facilitate campaigning at the state convention (including potential video), though when it comes to this weekend’s caucuses, it may be too late.
(3) Signature Requirement for DNC Candidacy
According to the filing form required to run for Democratic National Committee at the state convention, a candidate is required to “collect the signatures of 50 registered Virginia voters from at least six Congressional Districts.”
Clearly it’s unreasonable to expect people to collect physical signatures during a pandemic, especially given Governor Northam’s EO-55: a problem the General Assembly should consider when it comes to local elections this year in Virginia. The DPVA has adapted by allowing the signatures to be collected remotely, though it’s unclear whether this process is as easy and efficient as it could be.
(4) Fate of Sanders At-Large National Delegates
Rule 11(c) of the Delegate Selection Rules for the 2020 Democratic National Committee reads in part:
“If a presidential candidate entitled to an allocation under this rule is no longer a candidate at the time at-large delegates are selected, his/her allocation shall be proportionately divided among the other preferences entitled to an allocation.”
Depending on whether or not Bernie Sanders is officially “no longer a candidate,” the Sanders At-Large National Delegate seats could be transferred to Joe Biden. This decision will be made at the national level, but we should be prepared to adjust here in Virginia depending on the DNC interpretation of the rule.
These potential challenges should be easy to overcome, if we keep them in mind as we proceed through this historic process.
You can find the official party documents and resources devoted to the 2020 delegate selection process on the DPVA’s website.