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Open convention?

The new cries for an "open" Democratic convention are not at the moment given much chance of prevailing -- or of displacing majority candidate Carter if they do. But they raise some questions of interest beyond the inner workings of a political party that are nobody's business but its own. These reach to all the voters confronted each four years by the question of which party's primary to choose and just what their vote means to that party. Do they want their vote for a presidential candidate in the spring to be unalterably represented at the convention in the summer? Or do they want delegates to be free to change their minds and vote for whoever looks best to them by convention time? And which alternative offers the country most hope for bringing the people's choices to the fore?

Partisan politics may prompt the present call from some Democratic congressmen for candidates Carter and Kennedy to release their delegates. Their argument is that an open convention could unite the party behind the most likely winner, who might be neither of the above. They fear riding the coattails of all-but-anointed nominee Carter to defeat if he rates no better in November than he does in July.

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But something besides partisan politics ought to enter into the decision on how open a national political convention should be. The decision belongs to the party as represented at the convention. The party must take the favorable or unfavorable consequences of the degree of fairness and democracy its action displays. The Democratic Party, with its proclaimed reforms toward broadened participation, challenges itself not to thwart the workings of democracy either at the convention or during the preceding primary and caucus season. The more fully the will of the people is expressed the firmer the eventual nominee's mandate, whatever the partisan political calculations may be.

Here is where individual voters' concepts of representative democracy will affect their impression of how well the Democratic convention fills the bill. It will have to decide whether to adopt a proposed new rule that would bind all delegates -- whether selected by primaries, caucuses, or party officials -- to vote for their avowed candidate on the first ballot. The delegates could be replaced for refusing to do so.

This rule would assure the folks back home that their original intentions were being carried out by delegates acting as their proxies. For the delegates to do otherwise, with or without a binding rule, might be taken by many as letting down their constituents. After all, most Democrats during the primary season were expressing a preference for Carter, Kennedy, or Brown, not for a given delegate.

On the other hand, some voters may see delegates more like thier representatives in Congress, chosen to use their best judgment in the circumstances as well as to reflect a known point of view. Such voters would expect delegates to adhere to their pledged candidates but would not want rules preventing the delegates from switching under any conditions.

The Republican Party appeared to move in this direction at its recent convention. Though several efforts to broaden convention representation were defeated in the rules committee, a proposal to remove the last vestige of formally binding delegates was successful. Voted out of the rules was a clause that required delegations to be recorded in accordance with the primary results in states where delegates were bound to candidates under state law. Obviously Ronald Reagan delegates did not have to be bound by rules to vote for him.

Has Carter, with his clear majority of pledged Democratic delegates, become so dubious a choice that delegates would flee from him if they were unbound? Probably not. But, if they did, would he have been a likely candidate anyway? Whatever the answer, would those who voted for him in the primaries be disenfranchised by such a defection? Would they be any more or less so if Carter took the unlikely step of voluntarily releasing his delegates? Did they mean by their votes for him to give him this option? Or suppose he were not repudiated by unbound delegates. Would he then get an extra boost from the voluntary support that would not only help him but unify the party?

Such questions will be ratting around as the Democrats confront the open convention question. Their challenge finally lies not only in what decision to reach but in the process of how to reach it. There they will win points beyond the party regulars by being scrupulously democratic with a small "d."

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