I’m sure many of us have run into this in a number of orgs with which we’re active. Someone unfamiliar comes to a meeting for the first time, and the first question out of his mouth is something like:
“Why aren’t you putting any effort into….?
“Why aren’t you active in the (fill in the blank) community?”
“Why don’t you put out an appeal for people to…?”
“Why aren’t you doing anything about (my pet issue)?”
“Why don’t you talk to… and get them to….?
The easy answer to any of these is usually: “Because you haven’t joined us and started doing it.” There’s a bit more to it than that, of course.
From time to time, you will hear some person, a pundit or activist, maybe of some prominence, say “Hey, the two parties we have are so much alike, we really need a third party!” To this, we Greens can say “Duuuhhh… We’ve been here all along!”, and then hear all the reasons, made up out of thin air or not, why the GP never occurred to them as viable, or the Greens are just a little too this, a little too that, whatever.
It’s important for such people to understand what a huge investment of time and shoe leather is involved in just having a political party at all.
Americans are so politically ignorant that they usually assume that a political party just exists, with resources that magically appeared upon its birth. Maybe they think the political parties are written into the Constitution and get federal funding for office space, full-time staff, etc.? Who knows what people think, when most Americans can’t even name the two Senators from their own state?
I’m going to try to address this by laying out, as clearly and concisely as I can, just what’s involved in keeping a political party in existence at all. That’s before any effort goes into what a party is supposed to DO.
I. WHY HAVE A POLITICAL PARTY?
Generally, it’s for two purposes:
A. Convenience in getting candidates on the ballot in partisan races
Notice that phrase: “partisan races”: a very important distinction that one must understand. It’s a legal thing, over which we have no control. State laws vary a great deal about this, but in California, from the state legislature on up, most elected offices are “partisan”. That means the candidate has a party affiliation printed on the ballot under the name. Such elections are a whole different ball game from non-partisan races, in which most voters will be unaware of the candidate’s party.
In partisan races, it’s nearly always a lot easier to get on the ballot if you’re running for a party’s nomination. If you run as an “independent”, that usually means getting some huge number of signatures on petitions. That costs lots of money and shoe leather EVERY TIME EACH CANDIDATE wants to run. Again, each state’s laws are different about this, but that’s the usual pattern.
B. Having a name and a brand that attracts people to the cause
There’s no need, inherently, to have a political party for this. Many non-profits doing good work have a big name that attracts donations and volunteers. But when a political party is legally recognized and its name appears on the ballot in most elections, a lot of free advertising comes with it. Mainly, the name on the ballot. The big parties get much more than that, of course, and once in a while, if a “third” party candidate makes enough noise, there will be some free media attention.
First… big shock to a typical American: Each of the 50 states, plus DC, plus the territories, plus the U.S. gummint, has a whole different body of election laws. Some things can also vary among cities, counties, special districts, etc. How a party gets legally recognized, and what such recognition means for what actually happens on the street, in the registration records, and in the voting booths, is different for each one.
California is what I’ve dealt with, and some relevant sections of the Elections Code for getting a party’s candidates on the ballot are:
Currently, that means maintaining about 90,000 voters registered with your party, or having received 2% of the vote in a recent statewide election. California is actually one of the EASIER states in which to get on the ballot.
That’s something to think about whenever someone talks about abandoning the GP and starting over. It took a massive effort at one time to get the Green Party established. If a party has not yet made it onto the ballot, it’s rather difficult to get people to register with it, since they’ve never heard of it, and its name is not printed on the registration forms . Who is going to collect 90,000 registrations for a new party, unless there is some extremely wealthy interest behind hiring all those gatherers?
In a society that fancies itself “democratic”, it’s nice to have some orderly processes in place to show that members of the party have some input into things like who the candidates are, what goes into the platform, and who speaks for the party. The party platform is especially important to a “third” party, since our candidates get so little publicity. It’s a major source, to anyone interested, for seeing what the party stands for. Then there’s just having some kind of recognized “leadership” for people to talk to. The Secretary of State, for instance, must talk to a party “Chair” to make some decisions about conducting elections.
So who makes decisions like this within a party, and what makes their decisions legitimate?
This is usually done in a primary election, which the state pays for and conducts on behalf of the parties. Sometimes, if party bylaws and election laws allow it, there might be some kind of party caucus or convention to nominate candidates, but not for the Green Party in California. I don’t know about the others.
Writing and revising a platform:
This is usually done by some internal process in the party. Usually, there are one or more committees writing proposed platform planks, which are then approved by delegates in some kind of assembly that might or might not be called a “convention”.
Electing Party Leadership
On a statewide basis, this is done by “convention”, again, with delegates sent from local units of the party.
IV. EXISTING, BEFORE FUNCTIONING
How are delegates to that convention chosen? That’s one thing that party bylaws usually decide. It usually depends on having recognized local organizations that appoint the delegates.
How does a local party organization get recognized within the party? That’s another thing that party bylaws have to decide.
You need a few people in each local district to come forward and get elected as a “central committee” for any party decision-making process to function. The Dems in California are organized by Assembly districts. The Greens are organized by counties. The state holds elections for the “central committees” in these districts every two years in the primary election.
Now, just think about the process of getting a few people in each county to come forward and take legal responsibility for the party in the county. How many people like that do you know? I’ve been with the GP for a decade, and know most of the Greens who’ve been active locally during that time, and it’s usually a strain for me to find more than one or two people willing to do it.
But let’s say we have such a person. To get on the primary ballot as a candidate for Central Committee (Actually, in the GP, we call it the “County Council”.), one needs 20 signatures of registered Greens in the county. For a Dem or a Rep, just step out onto a busy street, or ask around among your acquaintances, and you’ll find 20 people registered with that party pretty easily. For a Green, it’s different. Your party is less than 1% of the registered voters.
So a prerequisite for getting on the ballot as a County Council member is to know quite a few Greens already, or know someone who does.
Oh yeah, you could pay $200 for the Registrar’s file of Greens in your county, and go phoning a lot of people who’ve never heard of you, trying to get them to trust you enough to sign your papers. Try it. You won’t believe how hard that can be. Or you could try to get some of your friends, co-workers, and family members to register Green temporarily just to get you on the ballot. With some good salesmanship, that’s possible, but not for everyone.
Once you’re on the ballot, though, it’s pretty easy to get elected, since there are nearly always fewer candidates than seats on the County Council.
That’s another sticky thing.
Normally, the local active Greens are so happy to find ANYONE willing to serve on the Council that we’ll help them get the signatures with very little vetting. Once on the ballot, even if there are more candidates than seats, any warm body is likely to get elected.
With these “central committee”-type elections, where the candidate’s party is not a factor, it’s just like a non-partisan election, in that most voters go by what they see printed on the ballot, having no other information. This generally means voting one’s prejudices about gender and ethnicity (discerned from the name) and occupation.
What we DON’T get from such low-profile elections is any judgment from the voters about the political beliefs or competence of the candidates.
So you might get one or more people on the County Council who, for instance:
– decided to run because no one else would, and want
to do minimal work in the position.
– have more than the usual trouble with speaking
in sentences, writing a coherent paragraph, or
following the logical progression of a conversation.
– have hidden agendas or fantasies about how the
Council position can be used.
– haven’t quite caught on to the concept of keeping a
calendar handy and showing up at a particular time
– have a very different idea from most Party activists
about what the Party is for.
Much energy is burned up dealing with people in official positions to whom some of the above, and other handicaps, might apply.
V. BEING AVAILABLE
Part of that “democratic” thing is being reasonably open and available to the public. See my earlier entry:
The short version is, if you pretend at all to be open to participation from the public, you need:
– a phone line, and someone to check the messages who has
a clue what to do with them.
– a PO Box, and someone to check it often who has ditto.
– a web site that’s not embarrassingly outdated, irrelevant,
or ugly. This means having a person to maintain it.
– some kind of treasury to pay for various expenses. If you
handle more than $1,000 a year as a unit of a political party,
that means filing papers with the FPPC regularly. That
means having a reliable person willing to handle this.
– some basic literature explaining who you are and what
– mailing list, both e and snail, and someone to maintain it.
– meetings to which the public is invited, on some kind of
regular basis, just to give people a chance to get
acquainted with you. This means securing a venue and
putting together some kind of program that might attract
people. With the GPOC, this happens every month, and
seems to absorb most of the County Council’s energy.
V. EVERYTHING ELSE
A ship must exist and be a functioning ship before it can move any cargo. What I’ve outlined above is what must happen BEFORE a party can even begin to do the job that a party is supposed to do, i.e., help get candidates elected. It must all happen before the party can even grow enough to make any power available to candidates, so that they will want to run under the Party banner.
Keep in mind, too, that when you have a party platform that’s not very friendly to the current ruling class, big donations are hard to come by. That means with rare, trivial exceptions, no one gets paid for doing anything I’ve described above. Delegates to meetings travel largely at their own expense, and must have leisure time to do it. How many people do you know who choose to spend what would otherwise be “vacation” time that way?
Now let’s go back to those “Why don’t the Greens…?” questions.
If you come to a GP meeting to talk to “the Greens” about something, there are several kinds of people you’re likely to be talking to. Most of us fall into one or more of these categories:
(1) Council members — Mostly people just trying to fulfill the basic requirements to keep the local GP alive: keep the monthly meetings going, attend one extra meeting per month as the Council, deciding one thing or another about funding, advertising, buying literature, appointing delegates, whatever the Council is charged with doing in an official capacity. If done diligently, it leaves little time for much else, if one has a life as well.
(2) Official drones — This would cover the Secretary, Treasurer, Listmaster, Webmaster, and whatever other assistants might be appointed by the Council to do regular chores. It’s rarely all that one does, but it does take a piece out of one’s time. There are also some of us working on state or national committees (coordinating, steering, finance, media, platform, whatever). There is no limit to the amount of time that can be spent on such work.
(3) Unofficial activists — This might include perennial candidates, or people who do something issue-focused, not in any capacity as a Party official, but just being activists. They often like to avoid the additional responsibilities that having a title within the Party creates. Issue advocacy in any capacity is also a bottomless pit for time.
(4) Occasional contributors — Might occasionally donate or volunteer, strictly on a short-term, ad hoc basis if someone inspires them to do so.
Now if you want “the Greens” to do something, it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want and from whom you want it.
Do you want the local GP to “endorse” something, sign onto a letter, or in some way lend its name to your cause? Ok, using the party’s name is an official decision. That means you talk to the Council.
Do you want money from the Party treasury? Yup, that’s for the Council too.
With these official decisions, it’s like any other organization from which you want an official decision. You find out when the body making such decisions meets, contact the Secretary to have your thing put on the agenda, write up the resolution or whatever you want them to approve, and show up at the meeting to sell them on it. That’s how it works with just about any organization. It’s not up to the Council to read your mind about what you want. That’s why congresscritters have lobbyists write legislation for them. You have to at least present them with a first draft, and let them quibble over it.
If you think a position on something belongs in the Green Party platform, that’s something done at the state level. You’ll have to get involved in the state-level processes, which is easier than you might think. But first you need to be a Green: show the most basic commitment to the party by registering Green, and then go to a GPCA General Assembly, which we advertise when they happen. It’s not up to someone else to articulate your ideas for you.
The Party does not “run candidates”. The candidates run. Someone needs to come forward to proclaim him/herself a candidate. This is probably the most difficult thing in the electoral process. Politics is so filthy these days that anyone running for office runs the risk of everything in his/her life being scrutinized, re-written, and broadcast in the worst possible light. It often takes a certain kind of personality to want to run that risk: the kind of personality typical of fighter pilots.
Parties don’t run candidates, they support them.
Even if we had a strong party organization, there would have to be a candidate’s campaign in place to have anything to support. It’s up to the candidate to take out papers, file the financial paperwork for the campaign, and show some kind of base of support in the community before you can expect the party to take it seriously.
Actions by Volunteers
Do you want volunteers to show up and do something? That’s not for the Council. It’s for anyone you can exhort to do something. Generally, it’s up to you to organize it so people know exactly what’s expected of them when they show up. If you want initiative taken, it’s up to you to take it.
Occasionally, someone will come to the Greens (or some other groups I’ve been with) and ask for help organizing something. People who like to organize probably have already organized something, and have their hands full with it. Once in a while you might luck out with one of those occasional volunteers who might be ready to step up to something more long-term, but don’t count on it.
What have I failed to explain here, in the way of “Why don’t the Greens…?”
Comments welcome, if only to let me know somebody’s reading.