Why the Oklahoma GOP delegate dispute matters to you

Adam Bates Policy Analyst, Cato Institute Project on Criminal Justice
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As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama struggle in vain to demonstrate that they are ideologically distinct from each other in any meaningful way, a less visible but more consequential battle continues to broil within the Republican Party. An infusion of Republicans zealously committed to the rule of law and limited government has evoked a vicious and occasionally violent response from the old guard of the GOP, frightened of seeing the social conservatism and neo-conservatism that have typified the Republican Party over the last generation swept away by natural law ideas long dormant on the national stage. Nowhere are the contours of this fight more clearly defined than in Oklahoma.

Three months ago I wrote about the disastrous Oklahoma State GOP Convention and the tactics employed by the state GOP brass to stifle the expression of this revivalist Republican cohort. Although there were a great many improprieties in the way the Oklahoma Republican Party handled the convention, the complaint filed by the disenfranchised state delegates with the RNC Committee on Contests focused on just one issue: the patently improper election of 25 at-large delegates (and 25 alternates) to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Oklahoma Republican Party Rule 18(d) states in relevant part:

“Election of the Delegates-at-Large and Alternates-at- Large shall be by roll call vote.”

For those not fluent in the arcane language of parliamentary politics, a roll call vote is a vote by secret ballot in which each voter writes his or her vote on a piece of paper and hands it in anonymously to be counted.

At the Oklahoma State Convention, Convention Chair Marc Nuttle (who is on record promising a convention by the rulebook) and Oklahoma GOP Chairman Matt Pinnell teamed up to ignore this explicit rule and opt for a voice vote and a standing vote instead. In a voice vote, the chair of the convention simply gets to decide which faction is louder and declare a winner. In a standing vote, the chair looks at the crowd and declares which side has more people standing (there is no actual count, just the chair’s opinion). Unsurprisingly, the slate of delegates handpicked by the Oklahoma GOP brass won the voice vote as judged by the Oklahoma GOP brass.

The merits of voting by secret ballot rather than by voice/standing are obvious. They are so obvious, in fact, that the Republican Party has long pushed federal legislation mandating secret ballot elections on the grounds that secret balloting “is a basic American value that we must protect” and that any other method opens the process to corruption, manipulation, and intimidation. Further, because of the quirks of the delegate process, the votes at the state convention must be weighted by county, and it seems safe to assume that Chairman Nuttle is not capable of hearing in fractions.

So, how did the Oklahoma GOP respond to this straightforward complaint? By claiming (in a 144-page response to a three-page complaint) that the failure of the GOP to comply with GOP Rule 18(d) was immaterial because the same result would have been reached had they conducted the vote properly. In effect, then, the Oklahoma GOP’s argument is that as long as the GOP itself concludes that its own rule-breaking didn’t affect the outcome, no redress should be given.

If this “the rules are the rules unless we don’t want to obey them” species of argument seems familiar, it’s for good reason. This is the same tactic routinely employed by authoritarians (Republican and Democrat alike) to justify a wide breadth of evil in violation of the law. This is the same argument the Oklahoma GOP uses when it pushes voter I.D. laws (which they say are necessary to prevent fraud), though it can’t be bothered to identify voters at its own corrupt convention. It’s the same argument that Barack Obama uses when he declares that his own unilateral judgment of guilt suffices for due process when he wants to assassinate an American citizen, or when he declares that firing hundreds of missiles at another country doesn’t constitute “hostilities.” It’s the same argument Mitt Romney uses when he says that people accused of treason are not entitled to constitutional protection (Art. III, Sec. 3 notwithstanding), or when he supports the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act that allow the president to unilaterally detain American citizens indefinitely without access to the legal system.

Not coincidentally, this is precisely the type of “principles optional” consequentialism that this liberty-minded GOP revival steadfastly rejects (whether in local party politics or national policy). Are we still under the rule of law when the leaders sworn to uphold the law are permitted to set it aside whenever it becomes too burdensome or they self-servingly decide that following the law wouldn’t have changed the outcome? Further, the obvious question raised by this breed of argument is: If following the rules wouldn’t have changed the outcome, then why not just follow the rules?

In that context, though, it becomes easier to sympathize (though not excuse) young party leaders like Oklahoma State GOP Chairman Matt Pinnell for doing whatever it takes to get the results he and his bosses desire. When the entire political system, from the president of the United States to the lowliest party staffer, prioritizes winning the game over playing it the correct way, tawdry antics like those in Oklahoma are the inevitable byproduct.

As a result of the pervasiveness of this “politics is a team sport, and there is no ‘principle’ in ‘team’” mentality, the consequences of this growing insurrection within the Republican Party may not be immediately apparent. But while the national attention remains focused on the imaginary differences between Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama, a new political spectrum, one that replaces the increasingly incoherent poles of “Republican” vs. “Democrat” with the “rule of law” vs. “rule of man,” is emerging.

Whether the RNC eventually seats the correct delegation from Oklahoma may mean nothing to you, but the skirmish that produced this controversy is only the beginning of a struggle that may well determine America’s political future. If nothing else, this new ideological battle is much more entertaining than this one.

UPDATE: Shortly after completing this piece, I was informed that the RNC Committee on Contests has ruled on the Oklahoma liberty contingent’s complaint. Unsurprisingly, the Committee ruled in favor of the state GOP that the Oklahoma convention was properly conducted. The ruling was made on two grounds:

1. Although Oklahoma State Party Rule 18(d) explicitly requires a written secret ballot vote, and the State Party Rules trump the rules adopted at the convention (via State Party Rule 16(f)), the voice vote was legitimate because it satisfied the rules adopted at the convention.

2. There is no evidence presented that conducting the vote as the rules require would have altered the outcome.

If you find the first argument incoherent (we’ve already covered the “logic” behind the second), you’re not alone. The Committee acknowledges that the State Party Rules require a written ballot, that no written ballot was taken, and that the State Party Rules take precedence over the convention rules … then proceeds to uphold the voice vote because it satisfied the convention rules. The logic would be mystifying if it weren’t so expected.

The complaint will be appealed (to the same committee) before a hearing. It will then move to the RNC Credentialing Committee and finally to the floor of the Republican National Convention itself, but it’s plain to see how seriously the RNC takes such charges.

So, there it is. Another example of the party making the premises fit the predetermined conclusion. Of course, the more brazenly the GOP power structure behaves in this ridiculous manner, the more legitimate the liberty-minded resistance grows. It seems as though the aging GOP is banking on this (surprisingly young) movement exhausting itself and giving up. But as anyone who has interacted with these people knows, giving up has never been the strong suit of the advocates of liberty. Their principles don’t allow it.

Adam Bates received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Miami (FL) in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan in 2011.