Thursday, January 05, 2012

On the subject of PCO elections

The following is a comment that I have been building and collecting from comment threads where I have been defending the lawsuit filed by the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties against the Secretary of State to keep Precinct Committee Officers an publicly elected position.  I just don't understand why media institutions and editorial pages are getting behind this.  It seems they are in denial of the Constitution and the core foundations of our democratic institutions.

In the event of a vacancy, the State Constitution says that the County Central Committee of the party of the person who left the seat shall present three names to the County Legislative Authority so they may appoint a replacement to fill the seat. The RCW says that the County Central Committee consists of Elected and Appointed Precinct Committee Officers. This is not a private function, it is a public function, and one that we have to be ready for at any time. The King County Central Committee just went through that process to replace Senator Scott White in the State Senate. This is a critical public function for Precinct Committee Officers, and thus the political parties are asking for the PCO position to be filled by a public election within their precinct.  Contrast that with the Olympia City Council, which had to go into closed executive session to discuss the qualifications of candidates to fill a vacancy, or the King County Council which was made "non-partisan" by referendum a few years ago and had to go through months of haggling to fill the seat vacated by Dow Constantine.  If these decisions were made by elected members of a party, the entire process would have been open and it would have been done quickly so our representatives could get on with the business of governing, which is their job.

Another example that I see in these comment threads:  The Electors whose votes are counted and sent to Washington DC to elect the President of the United States are elected at Congressional District Caucuses held each Presidential year. The delegates to those CD Caucuses are elected by Legislative District Caucus delegates who are in turn elected by Precinct Caucus attendees. The Precinct Caucuses are presided over by the Precinct Committee Officers, who up to now have always been elected by the public and are recognized and trained publicly elected officials presiding over these neighborhood meetings to ensure that they are organized and run properly and efficiently as to not waste people's precious time. This is a critical public function, and an important part of our democracy. To close the process off from public election at the lowest grassroots level would damage our democracy and hurt our state.

Another point I would like to make is that the political parties have tremendous power in regards to our electoral and political process, power which can be either concentrated or distributed.  In our society, it is in our best interest to have that power distributed as much as possible, and having PCOs elected from the public INTO that party structure at the grassroots level ensures that power is distributed and not concentrated in the hands of a few.

Certainly there are plenty of internal Party politics stuff, and I would mostly agree that they should be dealt with internally. But for me the bottom line is not the meetings and activism, it's the core purpose of having locally elected public officials, so that when important decisions on who represents a district in the event of a death or resignation, it's as public as possible. Or when it comes time to identify our Electoral Collage members so that Washington State's voice is heard in Washington DC for the most important election in the world, the people who run the meetings at the very beginning of the process have some idea of how to run a meeting.

People who object to the parties outright make me wonder if they are basing all of their stated opinions on what they read in the media instead of real personal experience. Political parties are groups of people who really care about our communities. If you doubt that fundamentally, then we really need to have a longer conversation. I got involved in the Democratic Party in 2003 because I shared the idea at the time that they were closed groups making decisions in smoke-filled back rooms. As soon as I got involved, I realized I was wrong. It's not the parties that have been strangling our state, it's our political atmosphere that fosters the notion that the only way to get anything done is by achieving power through the exercise of control, rather than reaching for peace through the exercise of cooperation. That goes much deeper than the parties, and includes the transformation of our media, our education system, and our core values as a country.

Like I said, this needs to be a much longer conversation than just about PCO elections. The people of Washington have always had an independent bend, and that hurts our understanding of the purpose of political parties from the very start. I grew up in Kent, so I'm not an outsider. I just know we've been wrong about political parties since our ideas of them were skewed by the Grange in the early 1900's, and most people don't give the parties a chance to do what they are supposed to be doing.

What these editorial boards are suggesting is that PCO elections be paid for by the political party.  As if we having democratic institutions paid for is not the purpose of government.  This would likely result in the PCOs being appointed by the political party leaders instead of the public, which would result in much more of a closed political party structure making all of these important and representative decisions in a closed room instead of public officials meeting in public to make public decisions. This is not healthy for our democracy, and it is the wrong direction for our state.  And all of the major political parties, Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians, see it the same way.  All three have signed onto this lawsuit.

Our democratic processes cost time and money, just as any process does in the public or private sphere. While many of the functions of PCOs, Legislative District Organizations, County Central Committees and State Party Organizations may seem strange and arcane, they exist in order to amplify the voices of activists who freely choose to get involved in order to ensure their voices are heard in our government. It is worth the cost to ensure that these democratic processes are maintained and kept in the public sphere. Too many of the important decisions that our government makes are behind closed doors, with the voice of the public not heard or outright ignored. Please don't create or advocate for a situation where our political parties also close the door on the public, simply because county auditors are unwilling to do their duties as defined by the Constitution and the RCW.

What is the alternative, and where would that alternative lead us in terms of our bottom up grassroots people powered democratic institutions? Just saying "I don't want to pay taxes for this" isn't enough. What is the opportunity cost? I see it as Tammany Hall or a hyper powered party with no regard to the voice of the public, and I don't want to go there. Having tax money go to pay for PCO elections to prevent the corruption of our political process is well worth those tax dollars. At least to me.

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