Undemocratic nature of PCO elections and how it could impact the state central committee

This post kind of follows on the heels of an ealier post here, and will fit into a handful of other similarly themed posts I'll write soon. And, no, the theme isn't "Emmett doesn't like the state Democratic Party" in case you were wondering. 

Why did the Washington State Democratic Party Central Committee vote earlier this summer in to use caucuses, which are harder to participate in compared to a primary -- essentially closing the presidential nominating process to most voters? I'm convinced that it is in how the state central committee is put together determined how it eventually voted. So, for me its worth looking into how the central committee is formed and how that might have impacted the vote.

State central committees of major political parties in Washington State are made up of state committeemen and committeewomen elected from the various local party organizations. According to the rules of the Washington State Democrats, only Precinct Committee Officers can vote for representatives to the state party.

So, how does a system that ensures democratically elected local representatives will make decisions (PCOs are elected every two years from geographically based districts) end up deciding against the best interests of the majority of Washington citizens? Because, the system doesn't work the way it is intended. Just more than a third of the possible PCOs are even elected from their districts, and of that number very very few even have to run in contested elections.

Recently, I took a close look at the PCO election results from 2006. In four western Washington counties (King, Piece, Snohomish and Thurston) and one in eastern Washington (Spokane) no county had more than 36 percent of their PCO positions filled by an election and no county had more than 1.8 percent of their possible PCOs elections contested by more than one candidate. While PCOs are on paper accountable to a voting public, therefore making the eventual actions of the state party accountable, reality is very different.

Snohomish and Thurston counties had the worst rates of the five counties I looked at in terms of contested PCO races, where only .8 and .7 had more than one challenger.

These numbers bring up a lot of questions for me:

Does that very few people actually vote for who is running the Democratic Party impact how that party makes decisions? I'd say yes. If you have leaders who are unaccountable, who can be elected with little oversight, then their decisions are suspect. I wouldn't say it guarantees bad decisions, it just makes it way more likely.

Why is the turnout for people filing for PCO elections so low? PCOs are elected during the primary of the partisan election year and most party organizations are focused on winning top tier elections. By the time PCOs need to file for election, most local organizations just finished their caucus/convention cycle and are quickly moving into supporting candidates.

Do the local organizations and state parties actually want to do anything about this? Probably some more than others. In Thurston County we've been trying to recruit PCOs for appointment, but this doesn't address the issue of public accountability. We've also been trying to encourage participation by non-PCO members, but, then again their rights in the party structure are severally limited by state party rules.
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...I went down to the 47th and walked a precinct solely to attempt to recruit a PCO (I don't think it was a successful gambit, but that isn't all there is to "hearts and minds")... maybe I'd walk one of your precincts if you asked nicely.

by m3047 on Wed Aug 29, 2007 at 11:16:04 PM PST

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  You have some point. Maybe?

   The election of PCOs in the primary of even numbered years is very new, like so far once. Before it was in the general. The change came with the rest of the blanket/montana/closed/open/whatever primary stuff.
  I've been an elected PCO for the better part of 20 years (once the auditor or the USPS lost my filing), and it has always been that elected PCOs vote at the biennial county party re-organization meetings. I've cited the specific RCW before here on Washblog.
  When we've (Whitman)had our act together (I did it when I was vice chair), we've twisted arms and talked people into running for PCO, filled the form out for them, and paid the $1 filing fee.
  On the other hand there was the time that I and the other two elected PCO's re-org'd alone. We elected Ya-Yue as committeewomen that time. Paul and the rest are history now.

  What you are missing is: One PCO is in many ways a thankless job. If done right, it means walking around (driving in larger) the precinct and bothering people.
  Two, most people aren't really that political on an every day basis. REAL PCOs need to be.

   The real activists need to face the facts. The elected PCO (plus appointed after biennial re-org) are the basic "grassroots" of the formal patry organization. The Committee People from the Counties and LD's represent the local org's to the WSDCC. The WSDCC is bound by RCWs, adopted bylaws, charter and subject to DNC rules.
   (by the way, it isn't cheap to be a state committee person, and even more expensive to be a member of the DNC, and I'm really only counting travel expense).

  Yah want to change it, start paying attention year round, not whining about what is now.

Dave Gibney Pullman

by gibney on Wed Aug 29, 2007 at 11:37:01 PM PST

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Glad to see someone interested in this rather esoteric subject. Let me make a few observations.

Precincts are a terrible political division in our state. They are created by Auditors to manage what voters are eligible to vote for which offices. They are never meant to be representative of the electorate. The size and composition of precincts very widely, both within and between counties.

Each precinct only elects 1 PCO.

Consider this example: Pierce-2065 has only 1 registered voter. If that person runs for PCO and votes for himself he is elected.  Pierce-2025 has 2,948 registered voters. So the 1 voter in Pierce-2065 has the same weight as the 2,948 voters in Pierce-2025.

Just like all elected offices, the power of incumbency is massive for PCOs. Many young people and new activists never get to be PCOs if their Precinct is occupied by a long serving PCO-even if they are more active than the incumbent.

If PCOs were elected at the Precinct Caucuses instead of the Primary, it would radically change the make-up of the state party.

Another possibility would be to elect 50 or 100 " local representatives" for each LD. This would give much more equal and balanced representation than anything based on precincts.  

by Kelly Wright on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 12:21:49 AM PST

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  • Hmmmmmmmmm by Particle Man, 08/30/2007 10:27:34 AM PST (none / 0)
I think I'm understanding here that your central idea is that the non-representational way PCOs are recruited/elected is responsible for what you see as bad decisions  -- including the decision to go for the caucus instead of a primary.

That may be true.  It's an interesting point, a worthwhile one.  But I see things very differently than I think you do.  You are describing matters of timing and procedure as being responsible for the low number of PCOs -- particularly elected PCOs.  I see a very different reason for this low number.

Emmett, you're in Olympia.  Maybe the recruitment process is different there than where I live, south King County.  Maybe where you live, finding a PCO for every precinct is a matter simply of looking and asking.  But here things are more the way I imagine it is for Gibney in Whitman County  based on his description of PCO recruitment there. Simply put: it ain't easy to find people who are willing to be PCOs.  Like... much of the time it can't be done.  And because it can't be done, there are few PCOs.  

To increase the number of PCOs, the job needs to be changed so that it can reasonably be done -- and accomplishes something meaningful and, well, is fun.

Why is the job un-doable?  Well, I think PCOs are asked to do something that in most neighborhoods takes an unreasonable amount of time and is unreasonably uncomfortable and even, in some cases, dangerous, to accomplish.  

I believe that the doorbelling/outreach part of the PCO job -- which is its center, its base -- is unworkable in all but the most Democratic and friendly neighborhoods (perhaps vice-versa for Republicans).  Asking someone to do political doorbelling in a neighborhood like mine is tantamount to asking him or her to do something that can't be done within a reasonable amount of time and effort and with reasonable comfort.  Or you're asking people to take on a job and then not do it.  I've learned this experientially -- by trying it out for three years.  It's simply too difficult to do this job.  That's why people aren't doing it.  It's not a workable model.

I think that this reality is well known but that the party hasn't 'caught up' to it.

The basis of the PCO job, being a community liaison to the grassroots political organization, is a great idea -- a fundamentally democratic idea.  But times have changed and the model needs to change.  Door to door does not work now.  PCOs need to be asked to engage with people in different ways -- on different turf, on a different model.  What Ivan is doing in the 34th I think is going in the right direction.  

Voters are now being treated as commodities by political parties and campaigns.  The grassroots political organizations are not like this.  But, in general, the political environment is predatory on the voters.

Just imagine this task of going door-to-door where you're pulling people away from dinner, phone calls, spending precious time with children/family, etc. to try to engage them in a political conversation.  And then imagine this in a climate where many people are facing some pretty intense economic pressure.  People have to work too hard and they don't have the health insurance they need.  They're not able to go to school when they need to.  Some people are afraid of losing their homes.  

Now, imagine, on top of all this, that the Coordinated Campaign and multiple other individual campaigns and organizations like unions have come through the same precinct over and over -- never telling the PCO, just coming through.  Add to that all the phone calls that have been made to people.  And then add to that the bitterness and ugliness of the political communications that people are hearing these days -- attack ads, smears, lying robo-calls, a methodical campaign by Republicans and conservatives to say, basically, that government doesn't work and that all elected officials lie and cheat, etc.  And then imagine the fact that we have just lived through two stolen national elections (I see it that way and many of my neighbors do).  And we're in a bloody war that both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for -- and that politicians lies us into.

Can you blame people for being pissed off?

Now think also of all the people who are, truly, disenfranchised.  25% of all African American males in Washington state cannot vote because of felonies.  Hmmm  ....  that makes me angry and I'm not directly affected. This is not functional.

No, going to people's homes is not the way to do it.  People need to be engaged with in a different way.  PCOs should not be doing what all the other political campaigns are doing.  They should be out in the community doing service, helping.  They should be trying to reach people who do not vote.  They should be organized for political change that gets people engaged and enfranchised.  They should not be sent out to the same same pool of  voters -- frequent voters who are independents or Democrats -- that are the "target" of political marketers everywhere.  

I think that I've learned this the hard way over the last 3 years.

by noemie maxwell on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 08:53:17 AM PST

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They don't get back to you.  They don't return calls.  It's hard as hell to become a PCO.  Why would anyone bother?  If it's so hard to recruit them, then why don't they jump at the opportunity when one volunteers?

by Pen on Thu Aug 30, 2007 at 09:31:00 AM PST

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State Law grants a PCO power to appoint vacancies in partisan offices.

That's a pretty powerful thing, and about (ABOUT) their only legal responsibility.

As a party we recognize these important members of our organizations by having them be the voice for their geographic unit called a precinct.  I my 'small' county, we have precincts that consist of upto 2400 voters.  Others as few as 300.  Some are large geographical areas some are small.  These are all unique as unique as the individuals who are living in them.

I constantly stress that the PCO is important, because that is the legal 'base' of the party structure.  Most forgotten is the 'committee' portion of PCO.

We're a party of, by and for the people ... so those PCOs who choose to go at it alone are taking on a task that might be too big.

So how might it be cracked?

Simple, just like 8th grade story problems:  you start with what you know ("known knowns", if you will).  In this case, you start with who you know in your precinct.  Bring familiar faces together, have them meet and discuss whatever comes up (it's a political meeting!  Politics and organizing will come up).  Find some local issue (we're talking street lights and stop sign-type issues), and see what can be done.

Ask them to look at the list of strong Ds in the precinct and have them note who they know ... encourage conversations amongst them.

You'll develop a critical mass of interested people ... some will want to help ID those not ID'd ("unknown knowns", okay I'll stop with that), or help register the new neighbors.

All that to say that geography is important.  Outreach is important, and the PCO is important.  They/you can't do it alone.

by changingamerica on Fri Aug 31, 2007 at 08:25:06 AM PST

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Hi I'm a PCO and a member of the State Central Committee.  I voted in favor of the precinct causcuses, because I feel primaries, while they may increase voter turnout, do not encourage participation in the democratic process nor do they aid in enpowering neighborhood the way the caucuses do.  If we had a primary, downtown Seattle would hold all the power.  Minor candidates will have less of a chance.  The little guy would be drowned out.

by Mike Barer on Fri Aug 31, 2007 at 09:55:07 PM PST

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