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Commentaries

 

What Are Party Officials Trying to Hide?cartoon

Try this on for size. Early in the year 2009, we did a study of the websites of every single state Republican and Democrat party committee. What we found was that of all of these websites, there was only one which prominently explained on its front page what a precinct man was and how to go about running for that position. Just one. Out of a hundred. *

The office of precinct man is the fundamental building block of the party. Yet there was only one site describing that position on its front page. What does that tell you about how party officials view the importance of empowering voters?

Now since these websites weren't cluttering up their front pages asking voters to run for their precincts - what do you imagine they were asking for? If you answered "money," you get a gold star. With the exception of only a few of the more bare-bones websites, every state party committee was sure to ask for donations and volunteer help on their front page. You want to write out a check or make phone calls? Great. They can help you out right now. But except for that one state party, they couldn't bother to explain how to run for one's precinct.

Practically all these sites - on their front pages - were glad to show you photos of smiling big politicians, and headlines about what's happening in Washington and their state capitols. But they didn't have time to tell you about representing your neighborhood. You know what's wrong with the political process? This is it.

Now yes, some of these committees might argue they do show you how to become a precinct man. They do so, they might claim, by one of three ways. First, they might have posted, somewhere on their back pages, the rules or bylaws for the party. In which case, if you know to look... what to look for... where to look... and how to interpret them... then yes, with these rules, you may be able to figure out how to run for your precinct.

A second approach is to tuck away, again on a back page, some paragraphs extolling the vital importance of the precinct office. But then they usually don't tell you how and when to run for this office. And of course, if they really thought this was important, why isn't it on the front page? ...instead of photos of politicians? We should mention that we happily did find one state party which did a decent job, on a back page, of covering aspects of how to run - even providing a way to download the necessary form. Still, they didn't supply the address for where to send the completed form.

The third way, though, is the most common method. They'll provide the phone numbers of the chairmen of all the county committees. If you want to become "active" in your local precinct, then you should make a phone call to your county chairman. He'll be happy to see what he can do about getting you started. But first, why don't you drop by the party headquarters? Get properly introduced and all that. Find out what activities you'd be good at. In fact, there's a phone bank you can help out with right now. Have you done any calling before? Are you available to work this weekend? (Scaring off folks with grunt work is a time-tested way of dealing with undesirables. We don't say they all do it. But it does happen.)

But of course, if you're trying to learn how to run for your precinct, then why do you need to touch base with anyone? Why are they acting like you should first clear it with some party official? You're looking for information, not someone's blessing.

The fact is, everything you want to know could easily be posted on a website - and should be. What's with the secrecy? We want thousands of people to start thinking about running for their precincts. And we don't want any of them to have to kowtow to a political boss.

Oh by the way... here's the kicker to our study of state party websites. Six months after we did it, we went back to take another look. Remember that one state party that actually explained how to run for your precinct? It no longer does. Isn't that interesting?

* UPDATE 8/18/2011 - We're happy to report that in checking about, we see a few state party organizations, mostly Republican ones, are beginning to put a little bit of information on how to run for your precinct on the front pages of their websites. We don't claim to have had any effect on this matter, but we do see it as a positive development. We like to see every state party actively encouraging everyone to consider running for their precinct.

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You Needn't Take Our Word For It.

If you're still doubtful about what we've been saying here, then by all means, check things out for yourself.

For starters, go to the websites of the national Republican and Democratic parties, which are www.GOP.com and www.Democrats.org. (Go ahead, click on one of them.) If you do, you'll find lots of ways of donating your time and money. You just won't find anything about running for your local precinct. (Why do you suppose that is? Shouldn't that be the first thing to focus on?)

Next, do an Internet search for your state party's website. Go to that website and look for anything that might tell you how to run for your precinct (explanation of the position, necessary forms, signatures needed, where and when to file, etc.). After all, you would think every state party website would explain how voters can run for their precincts.

But don't stop there. Do a search of your party's county website (if they have one). Do they have anything pertinent to say? Again, if they do, we'd be happy to hear about it. But do us a favor: please don't send us links to pdf files advising party "activists" on how they should go about organizing their precincts. We've seen enough of that self-serving dreck to last us a lifetime. County chairmen aren't big on empowering people. But they sure do love lecturing precinct men on their supposed duties and responsibilities.

Can you handle more? Okay, locate your county's Board of Elections website (or county clerk, or elections registrar). See if they have detailed information on the results of your party's last primary election. If your party elects its precinct men (county committeemen, chairmen, captains, delegates, officers, or whatever) by direct vote, then take a quick look to see how many precincts went unfilled by any candidate. In our experience, it's often half or more. Sometimes its over two thirds unfilled. You might also check your county's site to see how many contested races there were, that is, races with multiple candidates running for one slot. We're used to seeing something like less than 5% of all precinct slots are contested. Wouldn't you think the political parties would desire a higher rate of participation? Why aren't they sending out mailings asking people to run?

To our knowledge, there aren't any published state or national statistics on how many precincts go unfilled. But please, prove us wrong. Produce documentation showing us that our suspicions are off-base. Do it and we'll link to it right here, proclaiming our error. Who's up for a challenge?

Finally, if you're not exhausted yet, try going to the website for your Secretary of State's office. The website should have plenty of materials concerning election procedures, results, rules and calendars. But what we've never seen yet is one that provides a proper explanation on how to go about running for your precinct. But hey, maybe your state will prove to be the exception.

Here's another cautionary note. We realize that the web sites of many Secretaries of State will link to other sites that display their respective state's statutory codes. These codes often contain the actual laws which prescribe, among many, many other things, how party precinct men are to be elected. The problem is, even if you can drill down to the pertinent rules and understand the legalese, a state might have very general laws, providing multiple options to its state and county central party committees. For example, a state may give a county party the option of either participating in a direct primary or instead calling a county caucus meeting to choose its precinct delegates. Moreover, the county may have the option of either doing this every two years or four. Meanwhile, its neighboring county party may have elected to take entirely different choices. As a result, your Secretary of State's office may have no idea how things are actually set up in your locality. They'll probably advise you to contact your party's county chairman (yeah, thanks).

But like we said, check it out for yourself. The experience can be an eye opener.

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Shopping At Walmart Doesn't Make You Walmart.

A lot of people don't get the point about running for a precinct. They say, "Who cares about party meetings? Don't I get my choice in the Primary Election?" The answer is, yes and no.

Make it simple. Let's say you routinely shop at Walmart (or wherever). In fact, you buy nearly everything there: your clothes, appliances, household items, and groceries. As far as you're concerned, you're "Mr. Walmart," their devoted, true-blue fan. And that's fine. But you know what? You're not Walmart. You're just one of their shoppers.

Sure, they love having you there, and depend upon you. And when you're there, you're free to buy or not buy anything that's on the shelves. But here's the thing. You don't decide what's on the shelves; Walmart does. Likewise, they decide how things are laid out, what the mark-up's are, what's being sold as loss leaders, what's being advertised, what's being phased out, and what never made it to a shelf in the first place. For instance, you might like a certain digital recorder. But Walmart might make a nice profit margin selling a particular flat screen television - but as part of a deal, they also have to push that firm's recorder. That might mean your preferred brand isn't in the store. So that's your hard luck. You can either buy from what's offered or go elsewhere. But what if there's only one other available store? What if you can't stand the trash they sell (hypothetically speaking)?

Okay, we've stretched the metaphor enough. Unlike the two major political parties, Walmart isn't designed to be a democratic, participant-based entity (nor should it be). You and your friends can't choose to get active on the grassroots level of its management.

Still, understand the point. You may be a life-time voter in one of the parties. And your voting may influence it. All the same, if you're simply a voter then you're just a shopper. You have little say on which candidates the party actually offers in the primary. And you don't know which candidates are being backed or torpedoed behind the scenes. So it's not surprising that you're constantly disappointed with the choices you're given. Keep in mind, a party, like a store, isn't in business to make you happy. It's there to serve the interests of the people who run it. And their interests may not coincide with yours - especially if they're closely tied to the public sector.

There's no point whining about a party's mediocrity if you're unwilling to help straighten things out. And you can't do much good if you're just a shopper. You have to be part of the party. The precinct men - they're the party. Become one. Run for your precinct!