Teachers' Attempt at Voter Suppression in Vegas Thrown Out in Court
The Democratic Party's plans to hold presidential caucuses in nine large Las Vegas casinos were upheld by a federal judge Thursday, who rejected arguments from the Nevada State Teachers Association that sought to shut down the caucuses or at least change the way those meetings will award delegates to the party's state convention.
"The national party says we want to increase political participation in under-represented groups. I don't think it is up for me to upset that," said U.S. District Judge James Mahan, ruling from the bench. "It is something that the parties decide."
Jill Derby, Nevada State Democratic Party chair, said the casino caucuses will be held as planned on Saturday and there will be no change in the allocation of delegates.
"The Court validated the plan we had," she said. "We are going forward with that plan."
The ruling is seen as a boost to Barack Obama's campaign, because most of the attendees of the casino caucuses are members of the Culinary Worker Union local 230, which has endorsed his candidacy. The state education association, some of whose officers are supporting Hillary Clinton, filed its suit after the Culinary Union endorsement.
Lynn Warne, NSEA president, called the ruling unfortunate. She also said she had hoped that the court also would have found a way for some of its members -- who open schools and staff the caucuses -- to take a break to participate in their local caucuses. She said the NSEA suit was not filed on behalf of the Clinton campaign.
The Obama campaign praised the ruling in prepared statement.
"We're glad that the Nevada court upheld the Nevada Democratic Party's caucus plan which encourages voter participation," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton. "While the Clinton camp clearly believed the voices of workers should be silenced in service of their perceived political interest, they enjoyed a twenty five-point lead two months ago and have much of the party establishment in their camp. So, despite their inherent advantages we are pleased this should be a close and competitive contest Saturday."
The Clinton campaign issued a statement criticizing the ruling.
"Make no mistake, the current system that inhibits some shift workers from being able to participate, while allowing others to do so, would seem to benefit other campaigns," the campaign said. "More importantly it is unfair... The Obama campaign has been clear in its belief that whoever wins the culinary union endorsement will win Nevada. We will leave it up to the people of Nevada to make that decision."
THE COURT HEARING
Judge Mahan's ruling came after a hearing where both sides accused each other of disenfranchising likely Democratic voters.
The NSEA lawyers said Nevada's Democratic Party did not fully disclose that it would be awarding one state convention delegate for every five participants in the casino caucuses. In contrast, throughout the rest of Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, only one delegate would be assigned for every 50 participants, they noted.
"These rules are not fair, they violate equal protection," said Mark Ferrario, NSEA attorney. "There was something wrong with the process that led up to the adoption of the at-large precinct caucuses."
Ferrario argued that the delegate-heavy weighting of the casino caucuses was secretly developed by the state Democratic Party, was never formally adopted, and that it would dilute the votes of other Las Vegas caucus participants. He compared that dilution to poll taxes and white-only primaries in some southern states before the Civil Rights Movement.
"By upholding the (delegate ratio) count, you are disenfranchising my clients," he told the court.
In contrast, Bill Curran, the Nevada State Democratic Party's lead lawyer, said the NSEA suit was akin to an unexpected family fight just before a long-awaited big meal. He said the party did not have a secretive process to plan and create the caucus rules. That process began early in 2007, he said, adding the Democratic National Committee reviewed those plans last summer, suggested changes and approved it in October.
"This lateness threatens great harm," he said, referring to the suit's filing late last week. "It seeks unprecedented judicial interference."
Judge Mahan asked if the state party would accept a compromise suggested by the NSEA -- the caucuses would be held, but the delegate allocation formula would be adjusted to reflect the norm in the rest of Clarke County, where there is a 50:1 ratio rather than 5:1. Curran said any last-minute change could clash with the DNC's oversight and approval.
"There have already been some states that have violated party rules," he said. "They have been sanctioned by the national parties."
Curran also said that caucuses are not "one-man, one-vote" exercises. Instead, he said they are a system of proportional representation created by the party as its own way of selecting a presidential nominee. He added that the delegate allocation ratios vary across the state, which reflects the party's attempt to balance input of urban and rural voters.
"There are lots of things where there is not a one-man, one-vote basis," he said. "If you look at the way delegates are allocated from small towns, it is designed to encourage candidates to look to the voters of the entire state."
Curran also said the DNC wanted states holding caucuses to maximize the participation of minority voters.
Speaking from the bench, Judge Mahan noted that lawyers for both sides had cited every possible Supreme Court or District Court case to buoy their side. However, he said the overriding issues involved First Amendment freedoms of political parties to set their own rules and associate as they saw fit -- so long as those activities did not discriminate on the basis of race, gender or religion.
"The parties have a right to determine how they will apportion the delegates to their convention as long as it doesn't violate the Constitution," he said. "I am going to deny the injunction."