06 July 2010

The Purge of Pedro Espada?

In the past, I've noted that the two parties that form the American Bipolarchy differ from ruling parties in other countries in not enforcing their ideological lines by purging dissenters from their ranks. I was mistaken, at least as far as the state of New York is concerned. Section 16-110 of the state election law, dating back to 1976, establishes a procedure for cancelling the party enrollment of any individual voter. The power is actually in the hands of the state and county courts; they can purge a voter upon a complaint or "proceeding instituted by a duly enrolled voter of a party," if it is determined that "any material statement in the declaration of the voter upon which he was enrolled is false." A party's county committee chairman can respond to a complaint by any party member by determining that "[a] voter is not in sympathy with the principles of [the] party. Authorized by that determination, the accusing voter can go to court and get the accused stricken from the ranks "if it appears from the proceedings before such chairman or sub-committee, and other proofs, if any, presented, that such determination is just."

These laws are designed to prevent people from voting in primary elections. In the first instance, the courts can take action no later than "the second Friday before a primary election." In the second, the deadline is ten days prior to the primary. Today, however, the NYS Democratic Committee is invoking the law to have Senator Pedro Espada Jr. removed from the Democratic rolls. They have chosen the second option, charging that Espada, who bolted briefly to the Republicans in a power-play not so long ago, is "not in sympathy" with Democratic party principles because he joined the party with "ulterior motives." Here's a statement from the state Democratic chairman:

Time and again, by word and by deed, Pedro Espada has put his own naked financial interest ahead of bedrock Democratic ideals. Espada has run rough-shod over campaign finance rules devised by Democrats, has played fast-and-loose with state residency requirements, and - most egregiously - appears to be a Democrat purely for personal profit, not a commitment to our core values.

I have a problem with this law that has nothing to do with Senator Espada. The law begs a big question: who gets to define the principles of the party? Those principles are theoretically redefined every time a party publishes a platform. In time, a party can completely reverse its positions on some issues. It does so, presumably, because successive generations of rank-and-file party members decide, through their delegates at conventions, to steer parties in the directions they see fit. Primary elections or caucuses appoint the delegates to party conventions. The primaries and caucuses are determined by majority votes. The majority can construct a platform with which the minority disagrees. The majority thus decides what the principles of the party will be for a particular election cycle, but those principles only acquire authority through a process in which a minority participates and has, in theory, a chance to win. But by the standard set by New York election law, party members who want to steer their party in a new direction, or reverse its position on a controversial issue, could be deemed ineligible for party membership, and from running or voting in primaries, if their agenda is deemed "not in sympathy with the principles" of the party. This is not done normally to my knowledge. My hunch is that it isn't done because partisans understand that the Democratic and Republican parties are historically flexible (for good or ill) and are rightfully subject to influence by insurgents or innovators. They welcome challenges (within reason) because evolution is healthy for the major parties, They can't be allowed to become obsolete due to excessive dedication to permanent principles, after all. As long as this law is on the books, however, and if compliant courts can be found, less (or more) principled party leaders would seem to be able to use them for mischief in the form of disfranchisement in the name of ideological conformity.

On a more cynical note, I should add that mercenary motives have never proven that a politician is "not in sympathy" with the principles of his party. If Sen. Espada is clever, he might make the point himself -- and it might be fun to watch him prove his point.


d.eris said...

"party leaders would seem to be able to use them for mischief in the form of disfranchisement in the name of ideological conformity."

I wasn't aware of this law or process. Do you happen to know if it could it also be used by rank and file individuals against party leaders?

Samuel Wilson said...

The proceeding can be instituted by any "duly enrolled voter of a party" according to the letter of the law. The voter can go directly to a judge with evidence that "any material statement in the declaration of the [accused] voter upon which he was enrolled is false," or he can go to the county committee chairman with a written complaint that someone is "not in sympathy with the principles of such party." The first option is really restricted to enrollments under false pretenses like age, citizenship or residency, while the second depends on the determination of the county committee chairman, who can then go to a judge to have the offending voter de-enrolled. Practically speaking, a rank-and-file protester could use this against a leader or an elected official only if the county committee chairman shares the protester's hostility toward that official.

d.eris said...