or: How Sausage is Made
I'm a big fan of the League of Women Voters. Really. State and local Leagues do amazing work. They publish and distribute those non-partisan Voter Guides you've probably seen before each election. They register new voters, and advocate for voting rights and better polling access for everybody, including minorities and poor people. They advocate on lots of other issues too, like redistricting, transparency, the influence of money in politics, and health care. I've only been involved with the League for a few years; although my grandmother was active in her local League as far back as I can remember, somehow it didn't occur to me to get involved until I moved to a small town where it was more obvious what a difference the local League made.
So, local and state Leagues are great. But after returning from my second LWV national convention, I find myself wondering how all this great work manages to come out of an organization that has got to be the most undemocratic, conniving political body I've ever been involved with.
I have separate write-ups of the caucuses and other program sessions I attended at this year's convention, for other LWV members wanting to know what they missed. But the Plenary sessions are where the national League's business is conducted, and I felt I should speak publicly about how they're run.
In case there's any confusion, this article describes my personal reactions to the convention's plenary sessions. I am speaking only for myself, not for any state or local league.
The 2018 National Convention Plenary Sessions
I didn't record details of every motion; check the Convention 2018 Daily Briefing if you care. (You might think there would be a published official record of the business conducted at the national convention; good luck on finding it.)
The theme of the convention, printed as a banner on many pages of the convention handbook, was Creating a More Perfect Democracy. It should have been: Democracy: For Everyone Else.
In case you're unfamiliar with the term (as I was), "Plenary" means full or complete, from the Latin plenus, full. A plenary session is a session of a conference which all members of all parties are to attend. It doesn't seem to imply voting, though that's how the LWVUS uses the term.
After the national anthem, the welcome by a designated local official, a talk, an opening address, acceptance of various committee reports, and so on, the tone of the convention was set with the adoption of the convention rules.
A gentleman from the Oregon state League (LWVOR) proposed a motion that would have required internal decisions to be able to be questioned as part of convention business. This would include the controversial new values statement. There had been discussion of the values statement before the convention, establishing that many people disagreed with it and wanted a vote.
LWVUS president Chris Carson wasn't having any of it. First, she insisted, the correct parliamentary way to do this was to vote to approve the rest of the rules, not including this one. That passed easily. Then she stated that the motion on the table would require a 2/3 vote, because it was an amendment to the rules which had just passed. (Never mind that she had told us we were voting to pass all the rules except that one).
The Oregon delegate who had made the motion protested that the first paragraph of the convention rules on page 27 of the handbook clearly stated that amendment of the rules only requires a simple majority. Carson responded that would have been true before the convention rules were adopted, but now that we'd voted to adopt them, it now required a 2/3 vote to amend them due to some other rule somewhere else, not in the handbook. She was adamant that the motion could not now pass with a simple majority.
The Oregon delegate was incredulous. "You mean that if I'd known you were going to do this, I should have protested voting on adopting the rules before voting on the motion?"
The room erupted in unrest. Many people wanted to speak, but after only a couple, Carson unilaterally cut off further discussion. But then, after a lot of muttering with her Parliamentarian, she announced that she would take a show-of-hands vote on whether to approve her ruling requiring the 2/3 vote. She allowed only three people to speak on that motion (the motion to accept her ruling) and then called the question herself.
The vote was fairly close but was ruled to be in favor of her ruling, meaning that the original motion would require a 2/3 vote. When we finally voted on the original motion it looked roughly equal, not 2/3 in favor -- so the motion to allow debate on the values statement failed.
(We never did find out what this mysterious other rule was that supposedly mandated the 2/3 vote. The national convention has an official Parliamentarian sitting on the podium, as well as parliamentary assistants sitting next to each microphone in the audience, but somehow there's nobody who does much of a job of keeping track of what's going on or can state the rules under which we're operating. Several times during the three days of plenary, Carson and her parliamentarian lost track of things, for instance, saying she'd hear two pro and two con comments but actually calling three pro and one con.)
I notice in the daily briefing, this whole fracas is summarized as, "The motion was defeated by a hand vote."
With the rules adopted by railroad, we were next presented with the slate of candidates for national positions. That sounds like an election but it's not.
During discussion of the previous motion, one national board member speaking against the motion (or for Carson's 2/3 ruling, I can't remember which) said "You elected us, so you should trust us." That spawned some audience muttering, too. See, in case there's any confusion, delegates at the convention do not actually get to vote for candidates. We're presented with a complete slate of candidates chosen by the nominating committee (for whom we also do not vote), and the only option is to vote yes or no on the whole slate "by acclamation".
There is one moment where it is possible to make a nomination from the floor. If nominated, such a nominee has one minute to make her case to the delegates before the final vote. Since there's obviously no chance, there are seldom any floor nominees, and on the rare occasion someone tries, they invariably lose.
Now, I understand that it's not easy getting volunteers for leadership positions in nonprofit organizations. It's fairly common, in local organizations, that you can't fill out all the available positions and have to go begging for people to fill officer positions, so you'll very often see a slate of officers proposed all at once. But in the nationwide LWVUS? In the entire US, in the (hundreds of thousands? I can't seem to find any membership figures, though I found a history document that says there were 157,000 members in the 1960s) of LWV members nationwide, there are not enough people interested in being a national officer that there couldn't be a competitive election? Really?
Though, admittedly ... after watching the sausage being made, I'm not sure I'd want to be part of that.
Not Recommended Items
Of course, the slate of officers was approved. Then we moved on to "Not Recommended Items". How that works: in the run-up to the convention, local Leagues propose areas the National board should focus on during the upcoming two years. The National board decides what they care about, and marks the rest as as "Not recommended". During the Friday plenary session, delegates can vote to reconsider these items.
I knew that because I'd gone to the Abolish the Electoral College caucus the previous evening, and that was the first of the not-recommended items proposed for consideration.
It turned out there were two similar motions: the "Abolish the Electoral College" proposal and the "Support the National Popular Vote Compact" proposal, two different approaches to eliminating the electoral college. The NPV is achievable -- quite a few states have already signed, totalling 172 electoral votes of the 270 that would be needed to bring the compact into effect. The "Abolish" side, on the other hand, would require a Constitutional amendment which would have to be ratified even by states that currently have a big advantage due to the electoral college. Not going to happen.)
Both proposals got enough votes to move on to consideration at Saturday's plenary, though. Someone proposed that the two groups merged their proposals, and met with the groups after the session, but alas, we found out on Saturday that they never came to agreement.
One more proposal that won consideration was one to advocate for implementation of the Equal Rights Amendment should it be ratified. A nice sentiment that everyone agreed with, and harmless since it's not likely to happen.
Friday morning "Transformation Journey" Presentation and Budget Discussion
I didn't take many notes on this, except during the presentation of the new IT manager, who made noise about reduced administrative burden for local Leagues and improving access to data for Leagues at all levels. These are laudable goals and badly needed, though he didn't go into any detail about how any of was going to work. Since it was all vague high-level hand waving I won't bother to write up my notes (ask me if you want to see them).
The only reason I have this section here is for the sharp-eyed person who asked during the budget discussion, "What's this line item about 'mailing list rental?'"
Carson dismissed that worry -- Oh, don't worry, there are no members on that list. That's just a list of donors who aren't members.
Say what? People who donate to the LWVUS, if they aren't members, get their names on a mailing list that the League then sells? Way to treat your donors with respect.
I wish nonprofits would get a clue. There are so many charities that I'd like to donate to if I could do so without resigning myself to a flood of paper in my mailbox every day for the rest of my life. If nonprofits had half a lick of sense, they would declare "We will never give your contact info to anyone else", and offer "check this box to be excluded even from our own pleas for money more than once or twice a year." I'd be so much more willing to donate.
The credentials committee reported: delegates present represented 762 Leagues, with 867 voting delegates from 49 states plus the District of Columbia. That's out of 1709 eligible voting delegates -- about half. Not surprising given the expense of the convention. I'm told there have been proposals in past years to change the rules to make it possible to vote without attending convention, but no luck so far.
Consideration of not-recommended items: the abolition of the electoral college failed. Advocacy for the National Popular Vote Compact passed. So the delegates agreed with me on which of the two is achievable. Too bad the Electoral Abolition people weren't willing to compromise and merge their proposal with the NPV one.
The ERA proposal passed overwhelmingly.
Rosie Rios, 43rd Treasurer of the US, gave a terrific talk on, among other things, the visibility of women on currency, in public art and in other public places, and what that means for girls growing up. I say a little more about her talk in my Caucus Summary.
We had been scheduled to go over the bylaws before Rios' talk, but that plan had been revised because there was an immigration protest (regarding the separation of children from parents) scheduled some distance north of the venue, and a lot of delegates wanted to go. So the revised plan, we'd been told Friday, was to have Rios' talk and then adjourn and discuss the bylaws on Sunday.
What actually happened: Carson asked for a show of hands of people who wanted to go to the protest, which looked like maybe 60% of the room. She dismissed those people with well wishes.
Then she looked over the people still in the room and said, "It looks like we might still have a quorum. Let's count."
I have no idea what method they used to count the people sitting in the room, or what count they arrived at: we weren't told, and none of this is mentioned in the daily summary linked at the top of this article. But somehow she decided we still had a quorum, and announced that we would begin discussion of the bylaws.
The room erupted in angry murmurs -- she had clearly stated before dismissing the other delegates that we were done for the day and would not be discussing the bylaws until Sunday.
"It's appalling", one of our delegation, a first-timer, murmured. Indeed.
But the plenary proceeded. We voted to pass the first bylaws proposal, an uncontroversial one that merely clarified some wording, and I'm sure the intent was to sneak the second proposal through as well -- a vague proposal making it easier to withdraw recognition from a state or local league -- but enough delegates remained who had actually read the proposals and weren't willing to let it by without discussion.
On the other hand, the discussion didn't come to anything. A rewording amendment that I'm told had been universally agreed to at the Bylaws caucus the previous evening failed to go through because too many of the people who understood the issue were away at the protest. The amendment failed, so even though we ran out of time and had to stop before voting on the proposal, the amended wording had already failed and couldn't be reconsidered on Sunday when the discussion was resumed.
(In case you're curious, this strategy is also how Pluto got demoted from being a planet. The IAU did almost exactly the same thing as the LWVUS, waiting until most of the voting members were out of the room before presenting the proposal to a small minority of delegates. Astronomers who were at the meeting but out of the room for the Pluto vote have spoken out, saying the decision was a bad one and makes little sense scientifically.)
There's not much to say about Sunday. The bylaws proposal was still controversial, especially since half the delegation never had the chance to vote on the rewording proposal; the vote required a "card vote", meaning rather than counting hands or voices, delegates passed colored cards to the aisles to be counted. This was the only card vote of the convention.
Accessibility note: I was surprised to note that the voting cards were differentiated only by color; they didn't have anything like "yes" or "no" printed on them. I wonder how many colorblind delegates there were in that huge roomful of people who couldn't tell the cards apart.
The rest of Sunday's voting was on relatively unimportant, uncontroversial measures, ending with a bunch of proclamations that don't actually change anything. Those easily passed, rah, rah. We're against gun violence, for the ERA, against the electoral college, for pricing carbon emissions, for reproductive rights and privacy, and for climate change assessments that align with scientific principles. Nobody proposed anything about apple pie but I'm sure we would have been for that too.
And thus ended the conference and we all headed off to lunch or the airport. Feeling frustrated, a bit dirtied and not exactly fired up about Democracy.
Up: LWV National Convention, June-July 2018, Chicago