News Flash: California Democratic Party Predetermines Outcome of Tuesday's Election. Voters Not Invited.

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Rick Jacobs Deputy Chief of Staff, Mayor Eric Garcetti

The following appeared in Saturday's Los Angeles Times.

From the Los Angeles Times
'Party' poopers
Endorsements of candidates before the primary cut regular voters out.
By Rick Jacobs
RICK JACOBS, former California campaign chairman for presidential candidate Howard Dean, is the founder and head of a nonpartisan, progressive group called the Courage Campaign.

June 3, 2006

ON TUESDAY, California Democrats will decide who their nominee for governor and for other state offices will be. Tens of millions of dollars will have been spent on ads, mailings and canvasses. But why bother? A month ago, the California Democratic Party already had endorsed a candidate for nearly every state office, from governor to Assembly to Senate. If the party has already selected one of its own, why is there a public election? Or better put, why would the party get involved if the people will decide in a popular vote?

The question is far more than academic. Wrangling in advance of the votes at the convention was fierce. Some candidates for the Assembly paid the airfare and hotel costs of delegates to get them to turn up to vote for them. In the case of many legislative races, the party endorsement is tantamount to victory because the districts are so absurdly gerrymandered as to make a Democratic victory in June an automatic victory in November.

In a heavily contested race, such as for governor, a party endorsement means a huge "bump" in the polls, the right to send mail at a much cheaper rate than opponents get and the ability to push money through party bank accounts, thereby legally skirting donation limits. As we can see from the heated Democratic primary battle for governor, it by no means guarantees a victory, but it sure helps.

Who are these people who decide that a candidate is "endorsed by the California Democratic Party" weeks before the primary vote? The answer explains the rapid decline in party registration while "decline to state" increases by leaps and bounds. The party's organizational chart shows the 7 million or so registered Democrats at the bottom with a confusing array of lines and boxes up the page to the pinnacle, where sits the central committee. If that sounds vaguely Soviet, it should.

The state party consists of 2,500 delegates selected largely by elected officials and county central committees. Tuesday's ballot has a section allowing us to vote for county central committee members, but I'm willing to bet that fewer than 5% of voters have a clue as to what a county central committee does.

If the above structure sounds obscure, it is, and it is meant to be. The state party is the instrument of insiders. The last thing elected officials want is a party structure that could have a life of its own, European style, in which policy is actually decided by the party and in which ideas matter more than old connections. The state party's central committee, which meets annually, consists largely of well-intentioned, mostly older individuals who work year-round on political activities. Some go to monthly meetings where a parliamentarian drones on about Robert's Rules of Order and the proper way to make a motion. Most care deeply about the state but have at best a cursory connection to those 7 million Democrats. And they have no connection to the "decline to state" voters, who also may vote in primaries -- albeit only for initiatives and nonpartisan offices. In short, it is neither a disciplined structure nor a porous, welcoming organizing vehicle for activists outside of the club, or for the millions who vote.

Voter turnout in this state is dismal. Indeed, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was elected with about 9% of the eligible vote. Most people are turned off by the political system as it is. When a party "endorses" a candidate before the primary, the only possible message sent is that your vote is not needed. The party has decided. Over time, this structure will become even less relevant. And that goes for the Republican Party too.

As with the former Soviet Union, perhaps the best way to speed reform is to vote against party recommendations. At the least, voters should pay no heed to statements such as "endorsed by the California Democratic Party." Democrats are the party. The party structure is not the Democrats.