Conventional wisdom

A survey of some state and county Democratic convention rules suggests Nevada’s Democratic Party was not out of the mainstream in blocking the Sanders’ campaign effort to substitute Robert’s Rules of Order for the homegrown set of rules devised by Nevada party leaders at the May 14 convention.

But it also finds that Robert’s Rules are widely used, that the use of voice votes for all votes is rare and possibly unknown among other states, and that Nevada uses super-majorities more often than most states surveyed. The Nevada Democratic rules contain two requirements for two-thirds vote thresholds and one for a three-fourths threshold. And another rule reads, “All votes taken at the state convention shall be by voice vote unless otherwise provided.”

Some commentators have said that because Clinton had a majority in the Nevada convention, convention rules mattered little, that her campaign would work its will. But if the motion to switch to Robert’s Rules had been a majority vote motion instead of a supermajority, the Sanders campaign would only have had to get 17 of Clinton’s votes to win the motion. Since some Clinton delegates believed the Sanders delegates were being badly treated, that would have been within reach. But the two-thirds vote requirement plus the refusal of convention officers to use other than voice votes left the Sanders campaign with no recourse. In addition, their motion was not accepted.

Not all county and state parties post their rules online, but of those that do, Virginia, Oregon and Washington Democratic parties all have a two-thirds requirement delegates must meet in order to replace rules proposed to the convention by party leaders. In O‘ahu County, Hawaii, the only use made of a two-thirds threshold is when someone tries to bring a matter to the convention floor without first taking it to committee. Supermajorities are used sparingly in most places.

Most state and county parties we surveyed made no use of voice votes. In fact, they were not even mentioned in some state rules, such as Utah. Washington actually prohibits voice votes. In Oregon, “If there is only one person nominated for [a party] office, the election may be held by voice vote.”

Voice votes allow the chair to determine who won, and in Nevada the rules do not provide for real votes if delegates call for it. But other states do allow it in various ways. “A roll call vote shall be taken upon the request of 25 delegates,” is an Oregon rule.

Robert’s Rules are widely accepted. In Virginia, Hawaii, Utah, and DuPage, County, Ill., they are the convention rules. The same is true in several counties in Iowa, the first state to hold a presidential voting event. In various states—including Nevada—they are the secondary set of rules, coming into play when an issue is not addressed in state rules.

The way convention rules can be used to favor factions or candidates was demonstrated in 2012 after Mitt Romney nailed down enough delegates to win the Republican presidential nomination. When delegates arrived at the convention, they were given a set of rules that included rule 40b, which effectively eliminated U.S. Rep. Ron Paul as a candidate against Romney, by barring candidates who did not have “a majority of delegates from at least eight states” from even being considered by the convention. Nevada’s Republican delegates, pledged to Romney on the first ballot, withdrew their votes from him in protest and voted for Paul.

An effort to get rid of 40b—and prevent any additional manipulation it would foster of the rules this year—by replacing the Republican National Convention rules with Robert’s Rules failed in April.