At this past weekend’s 2016 Quadrennial Republican Party of Virginia State Convention, the Nominations Committee reported a recommended slate of 13 delegate candidates, and 13 alternate delegate candidates to be elected by the Convention. Just like they did in 2012. And 2008. And 2004…and in every presidential year going back to at least 1972, the last year in living memory for anyone involved with the current process. The controversy surrounding this process illustrates perfectly why it has outlived its usefulness.
The composition of the Nominations Committee is a function of the Party’s rules. The State Chairman appoints two members, including the committee chairman and one at-large member. Then, the balance of the 13-member body is filled by a single appointment from each of the GOP Chairmen in Virginia’s 11 Congressional Districts. I was appointed to the Committee this year by First District GOP Chairman Eric Herr.
In keeping with custom, the Nominations Committee considered the candidacies of all those who had filed for the office of national delegate and alternate. There are no rules or requirements about how we were to go about the process of winnowing down a list of 80 delegate candidates to a recommended slate of 13, only decades of precedent. This process that has been in place for at least 44 years wasn’t chosen by the members of the Nominations Committee. The process chose us, not the other way around.
In past years, decisions have been made on the basis of who “deserved” the honor of representing the Commonwealth at the national convention, with most recommendations going to past and present holders of statewide offices, other elected officials, and as a reward to activists whose work had “earned” them a spot on the slate.
But this year was not like most years. In most other years it hasn’t mattered who the delegates were, as the results of the national convention were already known on the basis of a single candidate’s having secured the bound delegate votes necessary to clinch the nomination. This year, it is not overly dramatic to say that those whom we selected could quite literally determine who the next President of the United States will be. In large part, this informed the preferences of committee members this year.
The rationale for having a recommended slate is one of convenience. It is logistically difficult to have 80 candidates on a ballot to allow state convention delegates to have an open vote on who will be elected, and when the composition of that delegation never really matters, few are willing to sit through the additional time necessary to count such ballots and tabulate the weighted results. This logic is flawed.
Almost all other states have processes for selecting at-large delegates that are much more open and transparent. Colorado, for instance, had direct election of their at-large delegates at their state convention, with over 400 candidates on the ballot. Difficult? Yes, but not impossible or impractical. But is it worth the trouble? Yes, most definitely, as Saturday’s convention showed.
Our failure to accommodate the reality of 2016 and the possibility of a contested national convention gave rise to a tsunami of ill-informed vitriol about our process, only about half of which is unjustified.
Setting aside the opportunistic demagoguery from certain quarters, it is entirely legitimate and correct to say the process lacks transparency, and places too much power in the hands of a few leaders at the expense of the grassroots of our Party. I’m not yet sure what method I would recommend to replace it, but it must be replaced.
There are two main reasons why so much of the criticism is silly and uninformed. First, as I wrote on Sunday, despite all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, Donald Trump had a good day even though he only captured three of the 13 delegates up for grabs. That’s because he got three more delegates than he would have in a more transparent and open process. The pro-Cruz, former Rubio, and #NeverTrump folks probably had about two-thirds of the weighted vote on Saturday. If there had been a direct election of national delegates—cutting the Nominations Committee out of the process—we would have seen a result much like we’ve seen in other states around the country, namely the election of an entire Cruz-backed slate. If the majority’s preferences were manifested in a head-to-head contest with the Trump supporters in attendance, Trump would have walked away with essentially nothing. (See, e.g., Arizona, Colorado, Maine and so forth).
Second, no one is disenfranchising anyone else, and no one is stealing Trump votes by electing pro-Cruz delegates. The March 1 primary binds delegates on the first ballot. That’s it. The election Saturday doesn’t change that fact. However, under Party rules that have been around for a very long time, there is a process in place by which the Party selects a nominee when no candidate is able to secure a majority on the first ballot. That’s what we’re doing now, and simply because the Trump campaign was late in recognizing the importance of this step in the process doesn’t mean it’s unfair or “rigged” anymore than Florida, to name but one example, was “rigged” when it awarded 100% of its delegate votes to Trump when he only won a minority of the primary vote.
The confusion among some voters about this unfamiliar process is understandable given the lack of transparency. It is particularly so when their lack of understanding is exploited by politicians seeking to capitalize on uninformed rage. The Party would do well to break down the information barriers for these folks at every opportunity. In Virginia, that starts with ending the Nominations Committee slate the next time we elect delegates to a national convention.