Episode 2 – Who Should Pick A Party’s Nominee? Transcript

TRANSCRIPT: Episode 2 – Who Should Pick a Political Party’s Nominee? 

Washington state’s all-vote-by-mail presidential primary looks a lot like a regular election. But, really, it’s not. And this one is different than 2016. It’s earlier this time. Unlike 2016, there’s no Democratic caucus. It requires voters to choose a party preference. And a lot of people don’t like that. It raises the question: Who should get to pick a political party’s nominee for president?

Producer: Scott Leadingham

Hosts: Scott Leadingham, Greg Mills & Kanale Rhoden

Episode 2 - Who Should Pick A Party’s Nominee?
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Kanale (00:02):

From Northwest public broadcasting. I’m Kanale Rhoden and.

Greg (00:05):

I’m Greg mills, and this is how we ended up here. Today’s episode, the primaries. Wait, no, the caucus. Wait, how about how we select the presidential nominees?

Kanale (00:19):

Washington state’s presidential primary is March 10th the all vote by mail election looks very similar to any other election in Washington. Ballots get mailed out several weeks in advance. They’re due back at 8:00 PM on election night, but this one, this one is different for a lot of reasons.

Greg (00:35):

While it’s earlier this year than in 2016 unlike last time, there’s no democratic caucus and it requires voters to choose a party preference, which is new. And frankly, a lot of voters aren’t so happy about it. Some are unclear and skeptical about what it means in a state that has seen a lot of election system changes in recent decades. And it raises some questions.

Kanale (01:01):

Scott Leadingham. Hello….

Scott (01:02):

Great to be here at Northwest Public Broadcasting, which I hear is a PBS station. And so I’m going to go all Sesame street on you here.

Kanale (01:12):

Okay. Uh, where’s this gone? This is supposed to be about a presidential primary. Scott.

Greg (01:18):

I’m the tallest one here. My big bird.

Scott (01:20):

Greg, you can be whatever you want.

Greg (01:23):

Thank you. I appreciate that on what the show.

Kanale (01:26):

All right. Okay, on with the show.

Scott (01:27):

Stick with me here. Today’s episode is brought to you by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and the number seven and 39.

Kanale (01:35):

I have a feeling you’re about to give us some directions.

Greg (01:38):

To Sesame street. How did we end up here?

Scott (01:41):

Well, that is the name of the podcast, so here it goes. A is for Al or Alfred or Alfred Smith, B and C together for brokered convention D, you’re going to get a twofer here. Delegates and disenfranchisement. E for election.

Kanale (01:59):

Okay. It sounds like we’re in a perfume commercial. Scott.

Greg (02:03):

Stolen sense stolen votes election by Calvin Klein.

Scott (02:09):

Yes, I’m wearing it right now. Let’s move on. Okay. F is for F, D R.

Kanale (02:14):

Like the president Franklin Roosevelt.

Scott (02:16):

Yes. Good job. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in fact,

Greg (02:19):

Election.

Scott (02:21):

Yes. Thank you, Greg. All right. Okay, so we’re almost done here. Stick with me. G is for Warren G.

Kanale (02:28):

The rapper. I can rap pretty well.

Scott (02:31):

Yes, I’m sure you can, but no, I’m sorry, not the rapper. Let’s throw in an H as well. Warren G Harding.

Kanale (02:37):

Ah, got it. The president.

Scott (02:39):

Yes. Well a president, not the current one.

Greg (02:42):

Well let’s see the 29th president of the United States to be exactly.

Scott (02:46):

Okay. We’re almost done here. Stick with me now. The numbers 39 as in the number of counties in Washington state.

Kanale (02:54):

You know, it would be nicer if there were 40 lot easier for people like me to, to know.

Scott (02:59):

Okay, sorry about that. Uh, you can petition the state legislature to make a new County, I think. But in the meantime, here’s another odd number for you. Seven.

Greg (03:09):

Mickey Mantle’s jersey number?

Kanale (03:11):

I was thinking the same thing. You and your baseball references. I love it, Greg. What’s seven?

Scott (03:15):

Four seven is the number of times an election worker handles your ballot in Washington, at least in Whitman County. Every single ballot it takes a lot of handling to get ballots mailed out, picked up, sorted, counted, checked, double checked, all that sort of stuff.

Kanale (03:31):

And this year there’s an additional election for County election workers to handle all those ballots, right?

Scott (03:36):

Yes, there is though. I’m going to quibble with you a little bit, Kanale…

Kanale (03:40):

And what’s new?

Scott (03:42):

Yes, that is, that is norm. Okay. Over the term election because the presidential election, there it is. Okay. Because the presidential primary that we’re currently going through isn’t really an election as much as it is.

Greg (03:58):

A circus. Okay.

Scott (04:00):

No comment on that one. But rather it’s a way of facilitating a nomination process on behalf of the major political parties.

Kanale (04:10):

But that sounds way less sexy than Greg.

Greg (04:13):

Election.

Scott (04:15):

Right? I know. But in politics, there’s an old saying that no one wants to see laws or sausages being made because it’s too messy and I think we can officially throw in their parties, nominating their candidates.

Kanale (04:28):

Sounds like quite the process.

Scott (04:29):

Yes, it is quite the process. Kanale and frankly it changes a lot. In fact, this year, 2020 there was a change in Washington.

Greg (04:39):

It moved up to March.

Kanale (04:40):

Yeah. And weren’t there caucuses last time?

Scott (04:41):

Yes. And yes. Primary is earlier this time around. No caucuses for the Democrats this time and there was a primary last time that was for all intents and purposes, completely meaningless.

Kanale (04:54):

Really? Why?

Scott (04:55):

This is where it starts to get in the weeds. So I’m going to take you to a meeting I was at recently.

Scott (05:05):

Where are we?

Scott (05:06):

We are at a league of women voters. Brown bag lunch, noontime program at the public library in Pullman, Washington.

Greg (05:15):

I’m guessing there’s some kind of presentation about to happen.

Greg (05:18):

Yes. Yes there is and it’s from the auditor of Whitman County, one of those 39 counties in Washington.

Sandy (05:27):

Sandy Jamison and I am the Whitman County auditor.

Scott (05:30):

Jamison has been in that position a few years and in Washington the auditor oversees elections in the County plus a lot of other stuff and by her own admission she says she really didn’t know just how much goes into elections when she came into this job. Like the fact every single ballot gets handled by election workers at least seven times for every election.

Kanale (05:54):

Hey, Scott. How many registered voters are there? Just Whitman County.

Scott (05:58):

Well it, it fluctuates from week to week and closer to elections as people register and change their addresses. But let’s say it’s around 25,000.

Greg (06:08):

And how many in the whole state?

Scott (06:09):

About 4.5 million.

Kanale (06:12):

So 4.5 million registered voters. Of course, not all of them return ballots, but even if half do and they’re each handled seven times.

Greg (06:21):

That’s a lot of fingerprints.

Scott (06:23):

Yes, it certainly is a lot of fingerprints, especially in a County like Whitman because it has a large university, Washington State who I guess at this point we should say is the license holder of this public broadcasting station. But we are editorially independent. But the rest of the County is very rural, small towns, agriculture, a huge wheat producing region. And for the County elections office, well, Sandy Jamison can tell you that.

Sandy (06:48):

Most people don’t realize nor did I, that any time a ballot is handled in the elections office, two people have to be present. So every time we empty a a ballot box or we go to the post office to pick up, uh, ballots that are being mailed in, that takes two staff. And so on election night, I need two staff at every box to close it right at 8:00 PM and I have four boxes that need to be closed. Eight o’clock is the same at each box. So that means I need, you know, that many people. So I have several temporary election workers that I use to do that, those types of things. And it’s certainly to um, to, to maintain the anonymity and the credibility of each ballot. So we always have two, two people handling them.

Kanale (07:35):

So just a few staff members to cover a pretty big geographic area. And each ballot has to be picked up with two staff members present, when going out to rural towns to pick up from Dropbox’s.

Scott (07:46):

Yeah, it can be a lot manageable during a small election, like for school levies and bonds that don’t have a lot of turnout or in an off year like 2019 but in a presidential election year, yeah, a lot of extra time being put in by election workers. And that’s what Sandy Jamison was doing recently at this league of women voters event. She was there to explain the changes in the state presidential primary this year. And there were a lot of questions.

Greg (08:14):

So based on the results from this primary. We ultimately as well, the state level will be told by the two parties and all their rules and what not, who, who the two presidential candidates will be on the November ballot. So we just treated much differently than any other election that we do.

Kanale (08:34):

What kind of questions?

Scott (08:35):

Well, I’ll say first that event organizers said they were really surprised at how many people came. There were about 40 people there. This is a noontime event on a weekday at a library. Normally they say they get about a handful of people to show up for one of these sorts of things and they were really curious about why the state switched and why people have declare a party in order to vote in this presidential primary.

Greg (08:58):

It is different. Uh, is, is that new?

Scott (09:01):

Well, yes. Kind of. At least recently in Washington. So do me a favor, let’s, let’s break out the, the ballot pack here, right? And Kanale. Can you read the statement below in the blue box.

Kanale (09:16):

Democratic party, I declare that my party preference is the democratic party and I will not participate in the nomination process of any other political party for the 2020 presidential election.

Scott (09:29):

All right, thank you. And now Greg, the red box.

Greg (09:34):

Sure. Republican party. I declare that I am a Republican and I have not participated and will not participate in the 2020 precinct caucus or convention system of any other party.

Scott (09:45):

Excellent. So from there, a voter has to check one of those boxes, blue or red, and then can fill in the ballot for only the party candidates corresponding to the box they checked.

Kanale (09:57):

And in Washington there’s only one choice for Republicans. That’s of course the president, Donald Trump.

Greg (10:02):

And a few more for Democrats.

Scott (10:04):

Yes. There’s a few more on the democratic side, including those who have already dropped out of the race, but their names were still on the ballot.

Kanale (10:10):

What happens if you check a democratic box but then vote for both Republican and Democratic candidates?

Scott (10:16):

Then your vote doesn’t count, basically.

Greg (10:18):

Really?

Scott (10:20):

Yeah. It’s sort of like voting for two presidential candidates in the general election. They cancel each other out and it’s not going to be counted in that race.

Greg (10:27):

And what if you’re an independent and don’t want to declare a party?

Scott (10:31):

All right, well in that case then you’re out of luck. Someone brought that up at the event with Sandy Jamison, the Whitman County auditor. It’s a little hard to hear, but check this out.

Sandy (10:42):

Now we open all the ballots. If I have 100 Democrat votes, we’re golden. But if I have either an empty blank ballot or a ballot that smart red in a blue signed envelope that gets put aside will be reviewed by the canvas board. But really it will not be counted.

Crowd (11:03):

What about independent voters?

Sandy (11:06):

Okay. At this point, this ballot does not allow for an independent…

Crowd (11:12):

Talk about voter disenfranchise on the presidential. Yeah. Yeah.

Kanale (11:19):

So if someone doesn’t want to declare a party in this election, they don’t get to have a voice.

Scott (11:26):

Yes, that’s true. But that really gets to a larger philosophical question of who should have a say in helping a political party choose its nominee for president?

Kanale (11:39):

You don’t think more people should be involved in the process?

Scott (11:42):

You sir, are putting words in my mouth Kanale right, no prob. But like I said, this isn’t as much of a, an election.

Kanale (11:51):

Greg.

Greg (11:51):

Election.

Scott (11:51):

As much as it is a nominating process for parties to choose delegates from the state party conventions to go to the national party convention and select a final nominee. Then that nominee gets put on the general election ballot and all of the electorate has their say.

Greg (12:12):

So think about it like a, the election of a new Pope, the Catholic college of Cardinals selects the Pope from among their ranks. What should all the people who call themselves Catholics be allowed to select the Pope?

Kanale (12:23):

Some would say yes.

Scott (12:24):

Not just that, but should any person, regardless of whether they’re Catholic, have a say. Should a Protestant be able to choose the head of the Catholic church in the same way? Should a declared Republican have a say in who is effectively the head of the opposing party?

Kanale (12:45):

Well, I guess when you put it that way.

Scott (12:46):

I’ve heard it said like this is essentially the primary process is a gift from the political parties to the general public to say, here we will allow you to help unwrap this present and have a say in what’s inside. But in many ways they really don’t have to.

Kanale (13:07):

They don’t?

Scott (13:08):

No, they don’t. There’s nothing in the U S constitution about the nominating process. The political parties have their own rules about how they nominate people and who should be those nominees and the nominees then have to meet state criteria to get on the ballots in every state. I was talking with Melissa Santos, she’s a political reporter for cross-cut based in Seattle. She’s covered this topic a lot.

Melissa (13:35):

The reality is, yeah, this is a party nominating contest. So I mean each of the parties wants the people who participate and choose their candidate, their nominee to be members of the party and not, you know, outside insurgents or something like that. So there is that element to work. The other thing, I mean we think about how the process used to occur. It was more sort of I guess theoretically sort of back rooms anyway, you know, with this process. So yeah, I mean they’re letting us in it in a way you could think of it that way. But I do think that having it administered by the government as opposed to just the parties themselves, um, does allow more people to participate.

Greg (14:14):

She mentioned the back rooms thing. That sounds familiar. What is that?

Kanale (14:18):

And it also seems like this method more than party caucuses allows people into the process and that to me seems like a good idea. Right.

Scott (14:27):

Okay. I’m going to get to both of those things a little later on. But first Melissa noted that she’s been hearing from voters in Washington and it reflected a little bit of what I heard at that league of women voters event at the Pullman library.

Melissa (14:41):

Yeah, I do think voters are confused. One, why do I have to declare a party in order to participate in this? I never have to do that. So that’s something I hear a lot. And also, you know, some just don’t like having to do that. Cause I think the voters in Washington historically considered themselves to be pretty independent and having to check a box to say I prefer when part of the or the other doesn’t fit well with people sometimes. Uh, the other thing is though, I also have heard concerns from some, you know, what, stop Republicans from voting in the democratic primary for some, um, you know, a Democrat they think is more likely to be easily beaten by president Trump. So there’s also concern on both sides. A little bit about this whole, uh, the way this a party affiliation thing to work and the way the primaries work, it’s, you know, I get a lot of feedback on it, but mostly people do not like the party declaration is what I’m hearing.

Kanale (15:34):

So a lot of people don’t like it. Why do it?

Scott (15:36):

Well, what’s popular is not always right and what’s right is not always popular.

Greg (15:42):

Did you read that on a poster somewhere?

Scott (15:44):

You know what, Greg? Yes, I did. In fact, it was on the wall of my high school civics teacher’s classroom. But seriously, Melissa also pointed out something really interesting in this.

Kanale (15:56):

And that’s what?

Scott (15:57):

Well, essentially the national parties are making the case that state nominating processes should use the results of contests that bring out the most people.

Greg (16:07):

So like Iowa stays with caucuses and New Hampshire stays with primaries because people are so used to them.

Scott (16:15):

Yeah. Again, a gift to the people to let them take part or at least feel like they’re taking part and whatever method gets the most party members to participate the better. And if you recall in 2016 the democratic party in Washington used a caucus to allocate its delegates, gets to the national convention.

Kanale (16:36):

And Bernie Sanders won that, right?

Scott (16:38):

Yeah. And about 230,000 people participated in the democratic caucus that year.

Greg (16:44):

But there also was a primary.

Scott (16:47):

Yes. And this is what people might think is confusing and weird. There was a primary in 2016 for the Democrats and people were super confused. It was completely meaningless. It was like a high school student body election.

Kanale (17:01):

I promise a longer lunch.

Scott (17:04):

Right. And recess. So let’s hope check this out. Washington’s democratic caucus went for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and the delegates, were given to him accordingly for national convention, but the meaningless primary went to Hillary Clinton.

Greg (17:18):

So how many people voted in that meaningless primary?

Scott (17:21):

It was over 800,000.

Kanale (17:23):

So 230,000 took part in the caucus that went to Sanders, but 800,000 people did the meaningless primary that favored Clinton.

Scott (17:34):

Exactly. So as a result, the parties, particularly the Democrats wanted to officially use a system that gets the most people participating.

Kanale (17:43):

Goodness. And that’s how we ended up here.

Scott (17:46):

Yeah. Basically the state legislature and governor Jay Inslee, were really eager to make Washington more relevant in the nominating process. So they moved it up under a state law signed last year and the parties agreed to take the results of this primary election process. And the Democrats basically ditched the caucus this time around.

Greg (18:07):

But with the caveat that you have to declare a party.

Scott (18:09):

Yeah, basically. And as a result, the 39 counties and their staffs, some of whom are just a few people handling thousands of ballots multiple times and answering pointed and frankly angry questions from people about disenfranchisement. Now run a primary election.

Greg (18:29):

You mean facilitate a nomination process?

Scott (18:32):

Yes. Facilitate a nomination process on behalf of the parties.

Kanale (18:37):

Wait, you’re going to tell us about FDR and Warren G Harding or that?

Scott (18:42):

Shouldn’t we do that after this message?

Kanale (18:44):

Nice segway.

Underwriting (18:54):

This episode of How We Ended Up Here is supported by members of Northwest Public Broadcasting. If you’ve ever watched a construction crew pour foundation for a home or office, you realize how important that concrete base is. It’s what gives the building its stability like that concrete monthly supporters provide a strong foundation for Northwest Public Broadcasting, dollar by dollar. Your donations are an ongoing and reliable income that pays for all your favorite programs and podcasts. Become a monthly supporter for just $5 or $10 a month. You’ll be rewarded by knowing your contribution is the cement that makes NWPB your home for your favorite programs. Join today at NWPB.org.

Kanale (19:54):

Okay. Back now, Scott proceed. What does Warren G. Harding have to do with any of this?

Scott (20:00):

Well, he’s not really directly involved, but think of it this way. Maybe without Warren G. Harding, we wouldn’t have the system that we have today.

Kanale (20:10):

So did he create the primary or the caucus?

Scott (20:13):

Well, definitely. Really not either, but he was here. Right. But stick with me. He was a spectacularly bad president. Like just nearly every historian will tell you. He usually tops the list of worst presidents on anyone’s list.

Greg (20:30):

Didn’t he die in office?

Scott (20:32):

Yes he did. But that’s really not why he was terrible. That’s a whole other podcast. But his election did come about from what you might call the smoke filled back room. See, I told you we’d come back to that. Thank you.

Kanale (20:43):

What’s the smoke-filled back room, Scott?

Scott (20:46):

Well, Kanale and my mother will be so happy that I’m finally using my political science degree here. It’s basically the idea of how politics, the real sausage of it was historically done. Political horse trading. Scratch my back. If I scratch yours, you might think of Chicago or New York political machines, smoke-filled back rooms.

Kanale (21:05):

And Harding was in one.

Scott (21:07):

Oh, maybe. I mean everyone did smoke back then, but really his nomination for the Republican presidential ticket in 1920 came about because of some extreme political maneuvering and deal-making in smoke-filled back rooms. There was really no sense of the nomination process as we know it today.

Greg (21:25):

And mostly just older white men smoking cigars and making these decisions.

Scott (21:29):

Right. Yeah. A lot of that, his election is thought of as a classic example of politics and presidential nominating processes coming about because of party insiders making deals and it’s kind of the start of people thinking, hey, maybe we don’t do it like this for all of eternity.

Kanale (21:47):

So it just goes away after him.

Scott (21:49):

Definitely not. In fact, people would say there’s still kind of a lot of that stuff that happens today.

Kanale (21:54):

Okay. What about Al? This started with the letter a for Al.

Scott (21:59):

Yes. Al Smith ring a bell.

Greg (22:02):

The married with children character?

Kanale (22:03):

No, no, no. That’s Al Bundy.

Greg (22:06):

Sorry.

Scott (22:06):

All right. Okay. Very different. Al Smith or Alfred Smith was the first Catholic presidential nominee from a major party in 1928 he was the Governor of New York, a major political figure in circles there and in democratic party politics a hundred years ago.

Kanale (22:24):

But obviously he didn’t win.

Kanale (22:26):

No, absolutely not far from it.

Greg (22:29):

He lost to Herbert Hoover.

Scott (22:31):

Yes. Good memory. Lost like huge. Bigly, you might say.

Kanale (22:36):

Did he have a scandal?

Scott (22:37):

Well, if you consider being Catholic a scandal, some people mind. Yeah, and they did at the time, there was a ton of anti-Catholic sentiment in the country, very similar to antisemitic tropes about Jewish people. Basically that a politician couldn’t be loyal to the country because they’d be loyal to the Pope first. And Southern Democrats from within Smith’s own party really revolted against him. The South was very Protestant, nowhere near the Catholic influence as in New York.

Greg (23:06):

So he lost.

Kanale (23:07):

Yeah. And Herbert Hoover is now president, right. As the stock market crashes and the great depression sets in,

Kanale (23:14):

And this is where FDR comes in.

Scott (23:17):

Yeah, yeah. They were friends. They ran in the same political circles in New York and Smith essentially convinced Franklin Roosevelt to run for governor of New York in 1928 while Smith was running for president.

Kanale (23:28):

Did Roosevelt win?

Scott (23:29):

He did, he became the Governor of New York and Smith is well out of a job and as the Hoover administration pretty much bungles the response to the great depression setting in, it becomes clear in 1932 that a Democrat could beat Hoover.

Greg (23:46):

Ah, I see where this is going. Who’s going to be that Democrat?

Scott (23:51):

Exactly. Roosevelt gets the bug. Hey, I can do this president thing.

Kanale (23:56):

And Al Smith wants to run for the nomination?

Scott (23:58):

Yeah. You have the immediate past Governor of New York and the current Governor battling out for the party’s nomination.

Kanale (24:05):

I’m guessing there’s some political horse trading here.

Greg (24:07):

Some smoke-filled back rooms perhaps.

Scott (24:10):

Well, it is politics, New York style politics.

Kanale (24:13):

And what happens?

Scott (24:15):

Remember our B and C letters from the beginning brokered convention.

Kanale (24:19):

Yeah, but what does that mean?

Scott (24:21):

It essentially means that there’s no clear winner going into the party’s nominating convention as the assured nominee and not even one after the first ballot at the convention. So it’s brokered, there’s actual deals and convincing going on for what state delegates will do.

Kanale (24:39):

And what happens?

Scott (24:40):

Well, you’re familiar with President Franklin D Roosevelt and the new deal, FDR comes out as the nominee in 1932 and it’s not until 1960 when the country elects first and still only Catholic president.

Greg (24:55):

When was the last time there was really a brokered convention?

Scott (24:59):

It’s sort of fungible, but 1952 was the last year of a truly brokered convention for both parties. There’s something similar but not as dire, called a contested convention that happened with Republicans in 1976 with Democrats in 1980 and Republicans to a lesser degree just last time in 2016.

Kanale (25:19):

That was the Ted Cruz delegates.

Scott (25:21):

Yeah, but it was really inconsequential.

Greg (25:24):

So it is possible for a brokered or contested convention this year.

Scott (25:29):

Well, I’m no prognosticator, but I’m willing to bet that if it does happen, it’s going to be much more likely for the Democrats than the Republicans. I would say so.

Scott (25:41):

And now we’re here on Sesame Street.

Kanale (25:43):

Our thanks to Whitman County, Washington Auditor, Sandy Jamison, the Pullman League of Women Voters and Melissa Santos of CrossCut and Cascade Public Media. See her political reporting at crosscut.com. More election news and insights are at the Vote 2020 page at NWPB.org. For Northwest Public Broadcasting’s. How We Ended Up Here, I’m Kanale Rhoden.