Suspension of the rules: A case study of Iowa's 2018 First District Convention

Sarah Hinds explains why she and some other delegates have submitted a formal complaint about the process used last month to elect Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee members from the first Congressional district. -promoted by desmoinesdem

My name is Sarah J. Hinds. I’m from Linn County. I identify with the Progressive wing and The Disability Caucus. I knew as soon as I jumped into Iowa politics I was part of the Progressive movement, but it’s taken awhile for me to understand what that means to me. Not knowing exactly what my place would be in the party is why I’ve been quiet in my involvement up to now.

The other reason is much of my service has been on committees where I need to remain unbiased. I’ve never thought about this until now, but one week after becoming active in the Iowa Democratic Party I was chairing the Credentials Committee for the most populous county in the First Congressional District (IA-01) in a presidential year. Let that sink in for a moment. And thus began my crash course with the Rules. I’ve been on five Credentials committees now.

After Linn County 2016, I was “co-lead in charge of alternates” for IA-01 and co-vice chair at State. This year I was the secretary of Linn County and IA-01. All of this is to say I only know a fraction of what the Rules Committee must know, but I do understand there is power and purpose in our convention rules, and their complexity takes time to execute.

I. The Justness of Our Systems: How Our Voice Matters in the Iowa Democratic Party

I don’t pretend to know exactly how our voting systems work at convention, but I know I like them. Being a very left-of-center voter, I rarely support candidates who are the front runner. As someone who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, how many times do you think I’ve heard the phrases “lesser of two evils” and “throwing away your vote”? I hate those phrases and the voting system that encourages them.

That voting system is “first past the post” or plurality voting. A plurality vote is when a choice polls more votes than any other but does not need a majority of the whole to win. Majority voting is when a choice earns more than half the votes cast among alternatives. I’ve often seen it expressed as 50 percent+ or 50 percent+1. There are different methods for balloting and tallying a majority vote and that’s where I get lost, despite a few tutorials.

My preference is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), or Ranked Choice, because honestly that’s how I evaluate candidates and what feels the most fair. I always know who my first choice will be but I usually have a close second in mind and a third or fourth I’ll accept. The privilege to vote this way as opposed to choosing a Homecoming King and Queen is one of the main reasons I prize being a delegate.

Whatever your feelings on majority voting, it is mandated by our Iowa Democratic Party Constitution.

Article V, Section 3 of the IDP Constitution states the District convention shall “Elect eight district committee persons, by majority vote, four of whom shall be men and four of whom shall be women, who shall represent such district on the State Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Iowa, and whose terms of office shall commence immediately following the next State Convention, and shall continue for two years, and until his or her successor is elected and qualified.”

On April 28, the First District Convention chose to suspend the rules and circumvent this for a portion of our State Central Committee (SCC) election. Many have pointed out the inordinate amount of time it took to complete our SCC elections by this system is what drove the suspension.

A Rules Committee member later explained to me, “This is why in the past, we used instant runoff voting. It allows the convention to get to two SCC members elected by majority on one ballot by having people rank their choices. This means only four ballots total are required: two for two men each, two for two women each. Without ranking, the runoff voting happens the old fashioned way – i.e. everyone votes for two candidates, the votes are tallied, the bottom one or two (whoever is below 15 percent) is dropped. Then everyone has to vote again. This went on all day long Saturday until eventually two candidates got to 50 percent.” Editor’s note: Sarah Hinds wanted to make the following correction to this paragraph: “The quote from a Rules Committee member about why IRV balloting has been used in the past should have been attributed to R.R.S. Stewart. The statements on IRV method were her and my own opinion and do not reflect opinions of other Rules Committee members.”

I’ve heard varying accounts of how the method of balloting used this time was selected but without sitting in on Rules Committee meetings myself I won’t speak to it. I’ve seen discussion how the process could be improved for time’s sake and why one system is preferred over another. I’ve heard calls for paper balloting but electronic (scanning) tallying. I’d love to see more discussion on that and encourage those who know more to write an article.

Now that some of the dust has settled, I’d like to analyze that convention and use it as a case study on what happened and how we got there through the floor debate. When we as delegates better understand the Rules of Convention and Robert’s Rules, I believe it will lead to greater satisfaction in our participation. I plan to highlight where inaccuracies occurred, including my own.

This post presents highlights of the floor debate as it was happening from my perspective (with parenthetical citing of rules). I’m sure many other things were happening during that time, which I didn’t know about. I’m only one human with one experience. The resource of Robert’s Rules I used during convention was the summary on pages 38-41 of the Iowa First District Call Book 2018, the same that’s included in the IDP’s 2018 Convention Guide.

II. A Case Study: Iowa Democratic Party First District Convention; April 28, 2018

It is after lunch once I enter the delegate’s floor. I was still out at registration giving the last alternates their delegate credentials. It’s a full floor and there are no seats left at the tables. My good friend on Arrangements Committee saved a chair for me along the wall.

I am there in time for the first election; District Affirmative Action Chair. Catherine Crist, Chair of the Rules Committee, explains the election procedure and runs it. The rules are explained as needing more than 50 percent of the total people voting to win. The number of candidates would determine if a hand count or a ballot would be used. Since there are only two candidates, a hand count decides the election.

The platform is next. A motion from the Platform Chair, Mike Robinson, to adopt and the call for debate on the matter are rushed through without pause. It is adopted in totality without debate. There are cheers from the delegation that we don’t have to debate the platform. The Platform Chair thanks us and says it’s the first time that’s happened in many years. I’m not the only one surprised that it happened so quickly.

For myself, I abstained from voting because I’m unaccustomed to having platform presented in this manner and didn’t catch on before it was over. I hear a few acquaintances near me voice discontent but they don’t have the words for the motion they’d need to repeal the decision. The presiding Convention Chair, Kurt Meyer, informs us we’ll still review the resolutions with the requisite number of signatures that were submitted from the floor that day. I was the author of one of those resolutions, so I’m relieved to hear it.

This review and debate is interrupted midway to begin State Central Committee voting. We start with the men. The Rules Chair is recognized to introduce how we’ll vote in this election. Ballots will be used and there is thorough explanation how to avoid mistakes and spoiling a ballot. There are 10 male candidates for 4 positions. We must vote for 2 on each ballot (no more, no less) and the order written on the ballot doesn’t matter because we’re not using the Ranked Choice method. There are multiple Points of Information raised by the delegation, one to clarify that the winners must earn a majority of the votes to win. Yes, the Rules Chair reiterates, they must.

After the first round of men’s SCC votes are cast we return to platform review. When we have finished debating all seven resolutions the Convention Chair makes a motion to accept the full platform we approved earlier, supplemented as amended by those resolutions. The motion carries. We are fully finished with the entire platform before the first round of women’s SCC voting.

Peter Olafsen, Vice Chair of the Rules Committee, is recognized to explain and run the election of women’s SCC (it’s introduced as “those identifying as female”. It was not worded as such during the male introduction). Editor’s note: Sarah Hinds wanted to add this clarification: “I’ve been informed the ‘male SCC’ intro conducted by the Rules Chair, Catherine Crist, also used non-binary terms. Additionally, instructions were given during the call for SCC nominations and nomination cards were likewise inclusive. I was not present during that call. The printed Rules in our Call Books included gender neutral pronouns. I wish to thank the IA-01 Rules Committee and its Chair for the inclusiveness and apologize for the misinterpretation.”

I assume Peter is running the female SCC election because Catherine Crist is a candidate. He reads the full instructions from a printout, a reiteration of the parameters given previously. We are reminded candidates must receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win. This time it’s specified if no one receives a majority the candidate who receives the least will be eliminated. The process will continue until two candidates are elected and then the process will begin again for the next two. There are 9 candidates for 4 positions in this election.

I don’t recall if, or how many, rounds of SCC voting transpired before an important motion is called by a delegate (this motion has colloquially come to be named “the 2PM” or “Afternoon Suspension” attempt by circles still discussing this event). The motion requested to suspend the rules to change the method of voting for SCC, in order to speed it up. The Rules Chair was not present or called upon to address the delegation. The Convention Chair conferred with other leadership and told the body the process of an election can’t be changed once it is already underway. For other elections not begun, we could. The motion was ruled out of order. — In researching IDP Constitution and Bylaws later on, an explicit statement of this rule has not yet been found.

Our next Order of Business is to elect State Convention Committees. The Convention Chair informs us what the Call Book’s notations represent next to the names of District Convention committee members. He puts forth a motion to elect committees with vacancies forward as a slate, to move the process along quicker.

There is protest that you have to allow nominations from the floor. The chair clarifies floor nominations will be taken and only committees with vacancies will be elected in this manner, once the slate is full. The motion is seconded and carried. We are apportioned thirteen spots on each State Convention committee. Which ones have vacancies? Arrangements and Credentials. The slates are quickly filled with floor nominations and they are elected via voice vote.

Platform Committee takes a little longer. There are already thirteen District committee members wishing to go forward. With the additional nominations that come from the floor we could not elect as a slate. There’s a request from the chair for anyone willing to step down to alternate to do so. A few volunteers comply and the slate is full with thirteen committee members and the rest accepting alternate positions. They are elected through on a voice vote.

Last–and most important–is the Rules Committee. There are already thirteen District members wishing to go forward along with District members nominated as alternates. Still, there are additional nominations from the floor (I wrote down seven names in my Call Book). Individual campaigns know how important it is to have some of their supporters on the Rules Committee; they have the power to make or break conventions.

Once nominations are complete, there is again a request for volunteers willing to step down to alternate. There is only one volunteer; the rest of the candidates hold their ground. More time passes before the Convention Chair announces the hold up is that two District committee persons removed their names from consideration; the Rules Committee is deciding which of their alternates will take those two spaces.

That is not how that works. That is The District committee nominations in the Call Book are a suggestion of who we should elect and an indication of who has experience. This should inform our decision. But I don’t care if a decades-long chair wants to go forward to State —the delegation still has the right to decide with their vote who is elected. The committees nominate a slate but they do not elect it; the delegates elect.

I rush to the microphone, even though I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say. Given how quickly motions are passing without debate, I have to act fast to be heard. I call for…

Point of Information (clarification; can interrupt, doesn’t need a second, no vote): “Didn’t we vote on a motion earlier that said only committees that had vacancies would be accepted as a slate but the others we would hold an election? Can I get the secretaries to read back that motion from the Minutes?”

There is a pause but my request is not acknowledged or granted. Since my Point of Information was not answered (I wanted to know if I was in line with our previously adopted motion before I took further action), to be safe I call…

Point of Order (enforce rules; can interrupt, no second, no vote): I repeat my Point of Information in the form of a statement instead of a question. The Convention Chair tries to explain to me that the Rules Committee may decide who they seat as alternates. I say they may once there is a State Committee. We have to elect our representatives to that committee first. The Rules Chair is not present at this time, so…

I call for Assembly” (misinterpretation): “Can we get the Rules Chair in here to confer on this? And the Parliamentarians?”

I’ve since checked and realized I misinterpreted Robert’s Rules Sections 13 and 24 (IA CD1 Call Book 2018, pg.39). I combined the ideas of purpose to “refer to committee” and “submit matter to assembly” thinking it meant to defer to a decision from a committee chair. I latched on to the words “submit matter to assembly” which is actually how you move to “appeal from the decision of a chair.”

Despite my error, the request was granted. Furthermore, it is in order for the Rules Chair or their representative to be present to run elections (IA CD1 Call Book 2018, p.14, “Order of Business” 18).

Why the Convention Chair was running elections is questionable on its own. —Convention leadership, the Rules Chair and Parliamentarians confer privately. The Rules Chair leaves and we have not had a ruling if I am in order or not. I ask if I am. The Convention Chair asks, “Do we have a motion?”

I state, “If my point is in order then I don’t need a motion. Robert’s Rules does not require a motion to follow the orders of the day” (I learned that one from my colleague in Credentials during one of our committee meetings). The chair nods affirmation and I sit down. And this is where I left my position wide open to opponents. I’m so used to the idea (from Linn County and District 1 precedent) that a contested election will go to a paper ballot that I assume we’re entitled to it. We may have a paper ballot, but if it’s not offered by the Rules Committee, it needs a motion and vote on the option. (IA CD1 Call Book 2018, pp. 22-4, VI.A.3. & VI.D.).

A prominent member of the Rules committee takes to the floor mic and offers a motion: to move two specific Rules alternates (they were named) into the open committee member slots and elect all other nominees as alternates. It is seconded and voted on; there are some nays, including my own. The Rules Committee is elected via a voice vote though not unanimous (IA CD1 Call Book 2018, p. 34, XVI.C.3.a.6.).

There’s nothing more I can think of to do, but then I remember there is something. It won’t change the outcome, but I can make it part of the permanent record. It will go in the Minutes. I rush to the mic again with my binder of the Convention Rules in hand. I highlighted all the ones I thought I might need but (I’m embarrassed) can’t find the one I want immediately.

“I rise to a question of privilege” (register complaint; can interrupt, no second, no vote): “I want to register a complaint that I think our voices were suppressed by not having a ballot on a contested election and I feel convention leadership encouraged this.” The Convention Chair responds, “Thank you for your comment, it is noted.”

—If I may four Monday mornings later quarterback that: we should have moved to vote for State Convention Committees by gubernatorial preference groups. Lesson learned. —

There is a lull in official business while SCC ballots are tallied. What would we normally be occupied with between rounds of SCC voting? Platform debate. We already dispensed with that. I couldn’t tell you precisely how many rounds of SCC voting there were. I can make an approximation of how long it took though. I was about five hours, start to finish.

The afternoon attempt to suspend the rules being referred to as “the 2PM”, the biggest contention of the day has been referred to as “the 7PM Suspension of the Rules”. Many delegates already knew we were supposed to vacate our venue by 7:30PM. They also knew that all the other districts had already adjourned their conventions. At approximately 7PM there was a motion.

Motion to Suspend the Rules: (IA CD1 Call Book, pp. 25-26, VIII.A.-D.)
I don’t remember the exact wording, the motion was poorly expressed, but it was basically to ‘take whomever the top two vote getters were on the remaining rounds’. Again, without complete certainty in my next action, I rush to the mic…

Point of Order: “Earlier in the day you ruled we could not change the method of an election once it’s already in progress. How is this different from that ruling?” The Convention Chair responded, “That was then, this is now.”

“I call for Assembly and Parliamentary Inquiry”: “Can we get the Rules Chair in here?”
Again, I misused “assembly” through my misinterpretation. I called for Parliamentary Inquiry because I know this is allowed and can interrupt a main motion (along with the Point of Order which can also interrupt).

I did not realize it at the time, but our Convention Rules stated that a Suspension of the Rules motion required the Rules Chair be given 3 minutes to address the body on the ramifications before it is voted on (IA CD1 2018 Call Book, Convention Rules, p.23, VIII.C.).

The Rules Chair arrives and she along with both Parliamentarians and convention leadership hold private conference. During this time, more delegates run to the mic while cliques of conversation gather on the floor. There is a cluster of conversation around the mover of the main motion. I’m still hovered near the mic but leave room for others to step to it. A man calls another…

Point of Order: “Do we still have Quorum? We shouldn’t continue voting on this if we don’t have Quorum.” I tell the man privately, “Once Quorum is reached it’s considered sufficient for the whole day.” (IA CD1 2018 Call Book, Convention Rules, pp. 29-30, XIII.) The Convention Chair cites this to the floor and rules the point out of order.

One of my colleagues from Credentials Committee and a prominent member of the Rules Committee approach different mics. They compete to call…

Point of Order: The member of the Rules Committee states ‘suspending the rules in this manner is unconstitutional because it goes against the IDP Constitution’s requirement to elect SCC members by a majority vote’ (IDP Constitution, Article V., Section 3; RONR (11th ed.), p.263, ll. 1-4 “Rules contained in the bylaws (or constitution) cannot be suspended — no matter how large the vote in favor of doing so or how inconvenient the rule in question may be…”).

She is prepared to read this section from the Constitution but holds back. My colleague from Credentials stands down as his point has already been raised. None of the chairs directly acknowledge that point. Leadership conference continues but we are not privy to their discussion.

Eventually the Convention Chair addresses the body, saying in the essence of time they have decided to allow a vote on the motion. It’s not clear if this is a unanimous consensus from the leadership. My colleague and I have discussed since that we never got a ruling on the Points of Order, but the Convention Chair’s decision to allow it is a ruling. We take a standing vote to decide if we will suspend the rules. This vote needs two-thirds to carry. It is a closely split decision but murmurs can be heard in the room “that’s not enough, it’s not enough.” The motion fails.

We sit down but the room does not settle. My friend on Arrangements Committee and I discuss that if staying in the venue is the problem we should check. We both think the venue will allow it. They did when we had Linn County convention there. He leaves to ask the venue if we can stay beyond 7:30PM.

He relays the information to convention leadership privately. I ask him what the verdict is. He tells me we can have it longer. This update is never announced to the delegation. The results of our previous SCC voting round are announced and the candidate roster put back on the projector. The same mover of the Suspension of the Rules approaches the mic again…

Motion to Suspend the Rules #2: ‘Now that we’ve seen the results of the last round of voting could we vote to suspend the rules again?’ The motion is slightly reworded from its first iteration, but it too would result in a plurality vote instead of a majority. It is still unconstitutional, but the convention leadership permitted the vote in spite of that just previously.

My colleague from Credentials has told me he raised the same Point of Order in objection again, but was not recognized. No one thinks of it at the time, but there is another reason this motion is out of order. Robert’s Rules state, “If a motion to suspend the rules is voted down, it cannot be renewed by moving to suspend the rules for the same purpose as the same meeting unless unanimous consent is given” (RORN (11th ed.), p. 262, ll. 28-31). This motion has already failed once. It needs to be unanimous to carry.

We take a standing vote on this second motion. It does receive a majority in favor but it’s not unanimous. We quickly cast our final ballots, and we have officially suspended the rules, changing the voting method for the final SCC positions from a majority to a plurality vote. The chairs of the convention ask us to clean up our space and organize the room so we can vacate as soon as possible. Many delegates begin to leave; others will stay to hear the announcement of the winners.

III. The Fallout

Half of my belongings are still in the Credentials home room so I leave the floor to consolidate. As I return I’m stopped in the hallway as folks say their good-byes. A few of my friends start to gather and before the convention is finished the fallout begins.

Some thank me for taking a stand and say they agreed with me. I hear rumors that specific people and a block of support in the room were organized behind the motion to suspend the rules. I’m astounded and honestly too shell shocked to have thoughts about it at that point. As huge cheers erupt for the winners of the last elections, I miss the motion for ratification (a few of my associates confirmed they voted ‘nay’ to ratification and no debate was allowed). I miss it because my good friend makes a statement that sticks with me: “I think that’s what the Progressive Caucus should stand for…it should be the ethical heart of the party. It should be one of our platforms. Isn’t that the criticism so many Independents have against the party, that it’s too corrupt?”

I sleep in late Sunday, April 29. Soon after waking up I open Facebook, because I’m curious how the other district conventions went. I quickly find I’m not the only one who was conflicted about First District. My news feed is on fire. There are opinions, quoting of rules, claims and credit being taken. Gossip. This person’s motivation was such; this group did that.

I see people applauding and self-congratulating the Suspension of the Rules saying [they] “know how to organize”. “You can’t fault them for using the rules in their favor”. “Keeping the largest power bloc at convention until the end is how elections are won”. I retort two or three comments from my perspective about how if that were the case alone I would accept it but infraction of the rules (whether out of ignorance or strategy) is not the same thing as whipping support to win.

Laura Belin is part of this conversation. She previously invited me to write a guest piece and in my anger I post, “I think I’ve found my issue I’m passionate enough to write about.” It’s then I realize I need to step away. The day and weekend continue with phone calls and emails about what was going on in the Rules Committee room behind the scenes and background on committee meetings and decisions leading up to convention I might want to use in my article. I’ve decided to write it from the perspective of things delegates could observe from the floor, because that is how we’re allowed to experience convention. Most of us don’t get to know what goes on behind the curtain unless our committee work affords us that insight.

Because I knew I was too biased already, I haven’t read any further commentary or even Laura Belin’s piece on our convention. I made that decision because, while I do share my personal opinion, I hope this article can be an informative learning tool as well.

I was relayed one piece of gossip that was restorative and I’ll repeat it: the organized group who moved to suspend the rules claimed if they’d known we could have had the venue longer, they would not have made that motion. The decision was made with the information given at the time, and that I understand. That’s how all life’s decisions are made.

In the end, whether the Suspension of the Rules and its allowance were due to exhaustion, ignorance, or strategy, I implore all delegates and alternates to read the convention Call Books (where the temporary-until-adopted Convention Rules are stated) and IDP Constitution and Bylaws. It’s really part of our obligation as elected representatives.

There are multiple power blocs jockeying for position in our Big Blue Tent. There will, most likely, always be internal power struggles and strategy. It is a chess match. I’m reminded of my brother and I learning to play chess at a very young age. We invented a rule that when a piece got in trouble it could jump off the board to be spared capture. Sure, we were using a chess board and moving the pieces but without the rules we weren’t playing chess. We were children imitating an adult past time.

I also implore delegates to commit to a long day and then some. If convention business can’t finish in one day, tabling to reconvene is an option! I understand the hardship of traveling and staying overnight; most of us have to do that for State. I liked one friend’s suggestion that in the future we should set up a convention AirBnB amongst ourselves. If we are going to rush through every section of the convention in service of haste and abdicate our rights of open debate and majority vote, if we are convening only to go through the motions then why bother to convene at all?

IV. The Follow Up

In the spirit of transparency, I wish to disclose a follow-up action to this convention. I am among a group of eleven delegates who wrote and signed a formal complaint letter to the First District Convention leadership. We cited the Suspension of the Rules conflicting with the IDP Constitution, along with other irregularities during the State Central Committee vote, and requested an audit of the ballots. We submitted the letter on May 3.

In our group’s discussion before submitting, some voiced that “it may not change the outcome of the election.” We know. It’s a matter of principle. If we can’t even hold ourselves accountable to our own standards, how can we expect to hold our political opposition accountable? As delegates we have a greater political duty than the average citizen.

Update: Our group of concerned delegates received informal response acknowledging receipt of our letter but no formal one. A week later we followed up again. On May 16 we received a formal response from the First District Convention Co-Chairs refusing our request for an audit of the State Central Committee election. My testimonies in this article on Points of Order and objections to motions refute some of their grounds cited for dismissal.

Disclaimer: The events detailed here are as I personally remember them and from notes I wrote during and immediately after convention, along with first person testimonies of my associates. I wanted to use the Minutes of the convention as an official record to compare my memory against, but despite my repeated requests the Minutes have not been released.

Sarah J. Hinds is a fifth generation Iowan but has also lived in Moscow, Russia and New York City. She is a progressive Democrat and former Secretary of the IDP Disability Caucus. She worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign in three states, 2016 IDP Coordinated Campaign, and Courtney Rowe for Congress in Iowa’s first district.

Top image: IA-01 district convention delegates, captured in a photo Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price posted on Twitter.

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  • Wow

    Sarah, thanks for your incredible post.

    Would it be fair to say that you exposed the underbelly of the beast that is the IDP? It is no wonder why people are disillusioned with political parties. Perhaps it will require a lot more failure at the polls as the “lesser of evil” theory of nomination continues.

  • thank you!

    i appreciate your efforts and find it a very well written piece; my tendency during so much chaos and so much back and forth is to forget things, just ignore them. the biggest problem is that people want everything to be in a neat little package and democracy is messy. those who criticize it often don’t participate to improve, they b**** and move along. i found your recounting to not be a criticism but a critique/accounting. you done good work for my money (even though i’m cheap!)