Hillary Clinton's Democracy Problem

When Hillary Clinton lost the Iowa caucuses to Barack Obama on Jan. 3, she had a rough and ready explanation: The caucus system, which requires participants to be present for several hours in the evening, effectively "disenfranchises" those who are unable to commit that much time. Her natural constituents, she reasoned -- working-class voters, especially women -- would be foremost among those whom the anachronistic system in Iowa shuts out. As if to show just how seriously she takes the right to vote, and perhaps to defuse the notion that her concerns about Iowa were simply a reaction to losing, she leveled the disenfranchisement charge both before and after her surprise comeback win in New Hampshire.

The accusation of disenfranchisement is especially grave among Democratic party loyalists, many of whom are likely to attribute Al Gore's defeat in Florida in 2000 to the "disenfranchisement" of Jewish voters in Palm Beach County, who misinterpreted their ballots and voted for the not exactly philo-Semitic Pat Buchanan, and to the considerably more sinister alleged disenfranchisement of minority voters in Broward and Miami Dade counties, who (the story goes) were purged from voter rolls, falsely accused of voter fraud, erroneously classified as felons, and even physically blockaded from voting, at the prompting of Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris. In other words, disenfranchisement is a concept Democrats neither deploy nor interpret lightly.

One would expect, therefore, given Hillary Clinton's avowed commitment to the principle that the right to vote must be more than nominal -- that voters should not have to choose between working to support their families and having their preferences counted in an election -- that Clinton and her campaign would exhaust all reasonable means at their disposal to ensure that the disenfranchisement of workers that took place in Iowa not be repeated during the remainder of the primary campaign.

One would be wrong.

The morning after the New Hampshire primary, the Nevada Culinary Workers Union, a 60,000-member union representing much of the Las Vegas casino labor force, with a track record of delivering significant support in elections, endorsed Barack Obama in Nevada's upcoming caucuses on Jan. 19. Two days later, the Nevada State Education Association (the teachers union), whose leadership is solidly behind Hillary Clinton and includes surrogates of the Clinton campaign in the state, filed a federal lawsuit that would have the effect of depriving hotel and casino workers of their ability to caucus. A federal judge ruled Thursday afternoon against the plaintiffs and, in effect, the Clinton camp.

At issue were special "at-large" caucus precincts that were created at a meeting of the Nevada Democratic Party last year. These ad hoc precincts were to be placed inside the casinos themselves, so that hotel and casino staff, whose jobs require them to be present at work during the busy Martin Luther King holiday weekend, could not be excluded from the caucuses. The teachers union lawsuit alleged that because the at-large precincts pool large numbers of voters together, they corrode the integrity of the caucus system -- in which precincts award delegates proportionate to their size -- and vitiate the equal protection of citizens outside the at-large precincts.

The logic of the teachers union's suit is eerily reminiscent of Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, in which the plaintiff charged that a full recount of the vote in Florida would have amounted to an equal protection violation by awarding disproportionate power to precincts with liberal standards for registering votes. Note that if the argument had gone through, it follows that every state election after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment was unconstitutional, since vote-counting methods and standards vary widely within every state. (There was a reason why the majority in Bush v. Gore stipulated that its ruling did not establish any precedent at all.)

Likewise, the complaint of the teachers union applies, mutatis mutandis and with equal force, to every electoral process in which districts with high population density have a larger say in the outcome than districts with low population density; i.e., it applies to every electoral process involving both urban and rural districts. It is true that, unlike a true primary election, in which voters cast a ballot directly for a candidate, caucuses employ a byzantine system of awarding delegates to candidates in rough and inexact correspondence to voter preferences. But this is a problem inherent to all caucuses -- and also to general elections for president, in which voters only choose state electors who are technically free to vote for anyone they please -- and irrelevant to the specific issues at stake in Nevada. Meanwhile, voting precincts in urban Manchester, like precincts in urban Las Vegas, carry more weight than precincts in rural parts of New Hampshire and Nevada. Nonetheless, the Clinton campaign and its supporters have not proposed amending the results of the New Hampshire primary to grant an equal average share in the outcome to precincts in Manchester and, say, Hanover.

Moreover, the Nevada teachers union has had months to register its dissatisfaction with the decision of the state Democratic Party. The fact that it chose to do so suddenly and immediately after the Culinary Workers Union endorsed Barack Obama, and mere days before the Nevada caucuses, is a fairly decisive indicator that the motive behind the lawsuit has nothing to do with fairness or equal protection. To be sure, the Clinton campaign is not a co-plaintiff to the lawsuit, and can plausibly deny a direct tie to it -- in much the same way that Hillary Clinton can plausibly deny a direct connection to her surrogates' serial yet completely coincidental insinuations that Barack Obama is a crack-dealing Wahabbist Muslim -- but the Clinton campaign's purported neutrality withers under momentary scrutiny.

The plaintiffs to the teachers union lawsuit are extensively and conspicuously tied to the Clinton machine. Their suit would have prevented a significant portion of Nevada's working class electorate from taking part in the caucuses, precisely the outcome that Hillary Clinton claimed to find abhorrent in Iowa. One phone call from Clinton could have put the suit to rest and ensured that Nevada's hotel and casino workers had a chance to caucus on Saturday. Yet she declined to do so.

Predictably enough, a backlash against the Clinton operation has begun. The Culinary Workers Union is stepping up the ardor of its support for Obama, distributing flyers throughout Nevada directly accusing the Clinton campaign of attempting a tactical disenfranchisement of its members. Union members are of course free to disregard their leadership's endorsements, but one could hardly imagine a more effective way to galvanize Obama's support among the rank-and-file than to alert them to Clinton's efforts to take their vote away. Furthermore, left-leaning pundits and blogs have been training Democrats for years now to recognize even the slightest appearance of voter-suppression, and they are virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the lawsuit. Hence the Clinton tactics jeopardize many potential votes outside the union. Even John Kerry, who presumably still has some influence among Democrats, has taken a public swipe at the Clinton scheme.

Yet despite her apparent, sudden volte-face on voter rights, one could not fairly accuse Hillary Clinton of acting inconsistently or without principle. In Nevada, as in Iowa, New Hampshire, and throughout the United States, Hillary Clinton stands unwaveringly for the inalienable right of all citizens to vote for her.

Daniel Koffler graduated from Yale in 2006 with a BA in philosophy. He is currently an itinerant philosophy student and blogger, and previously worked and wrote for Reason and Dissent.