The Rules of the Convention: Part One — The Basics

Normally, the rules of the two national conventions are an after-thought.  One candidate gains a significant lead in early March and the rest of the candidates drop out.  The convention becomes a coronation and the rules only matter to insiders.  This year, however, both parties may have two (or more) candidates fighting into June .  At that point, the rules may become crucial to bringing an end to the race.

This post will cover some of the basics in the rule.  With the race now entering a “calm period” with Wisconsin on April 5 and New York on April 19 before the pace picks back up on April 26, my hope is to reach at least three other topics over the next several weeks:  1) delegate selection; 2) the running of the convention itself; and 3) what might change between now and the conventions.

The two parties have some similarities and some differences in how they approach the rules of the convention.  The most basic similarity is that both parties at this point only have “tentative” rules for the convention.  The rules will only become final after the convention’s rule committee finalizes the rules, and the convention itself approves the rules.  For both parties, the convention is the highest authority within the party.  The big difference is where the rules fit within party documents and how they are drafted before the two rules committees convene.

For the Republican Party, there is one and only one key document in talking about the rules — the “Rules of the Republican Party.”   These rules contain three main parts:  1) rules regarding the operation of the Republican National Committee (Rules 1-11); 2) the rules for convening the national conventions (Rules 13-25); and 3) the “temporary” rules governing the proceedings at the upcoming convention (Rules 26-42).  Under the current version of Rule 12 (governing amendments to the rules), it took a 3/4 vote of the RNC to amend the first two parts of the rules (with a deadline of September 30, 2014 to adopt any such amendment).  Otherwise, only the Republican Convention can amend the Republican rules.  Thus, the tentative “temporary” rules of the Republican Convention are the rules of the last convention.   While the rules require the issuance of a formal call, the majority of the 2016 call is simply restating Rules 13-42 along with formally stating the allocation to each state and a tentative interpretation of some of the rules.

For the Democratic Party, there are four separate documents:  1) The Charter of the Democratic Party; 2) The By-laws of the Democratic Party;  3) The Delegate Selection Rules:  and 4) The Call for the Convention.  The Charter and the By-laws are mostly about the organization of the DNC and its relationship to the state parties.  While both have an article on the convention, the sections on the convention represent about one-seventh of the total text of those two documents.  As far as the convention is concerned, these two documents contain three key provisions:  1) a general formula for allocating base delegates; 2) creating the unpledged party leader delegates; 3) requiring gender balance in the state delegations.  Otherwise, the heavy lifting is left to the delegate selection rules and the call which are drafted for each convention (mostly by making minor revisions to the documents for the previous convention).  While the Charter and the by-laws can be amended by the national convention, they can also be amended at any time by the DNC (two-thirds vote to amend the charter, majority vote to amend the by-laws).

The nuts and bolts of the process by which each state selects its delegates for the Democratic Party is contained within the Delegate Selection Rules.  Each state does have a limited number of options for how to draft their actual plan to fit within the general rules, but those options are very limited.  By contrast, the rules contained with the Rules of the Republican Party give the states very little guidance on the allocation and selection of delegates (primarily found in Rule 16).

For the Democratic Party, the tentative rules for the actual convention are contained within the Call.  The Call also establishes the standing committees for the Democratic Convention — credentials, rules, and platform — and the process for choosing the membership of those committees.   Generally, the Call allocates a number of committee slots to the states (proportional to the state’s total delegation) and require the states to allocate the committee slots proportionately to the presidential preference results in that state with the DNC getting to name twenty-five members to each committee (representing about one-seventh of each committee).

For the Republican Party, the tentative rules are contained within the Rules of the Republican Party.  Those tentative rules establish four committees: credentials, rules, platform, and permanent organization (which nominates the “permanent” officers of the convention to replace the temporary officers named by the RNC before the convention).   Each state and territory gets two members on each committee (to be filled by delegates to the convention, unless the state or territory does not have enough delegates in which case a spot can be filled by an alternate).

Aside from the fact that the “current’ rules for the two parties are merely draft rules, the other key fact is that the chair plays the central role in enforcing the rules.  It is theoretically possible in both parties for a delegate to appeal a ruling by the chair (allowing the membership of the convention to overrule the chair), but it is unlikely that such an appeal will succeed (since it is likely to be by voice vote).  That gives the chair a significant opportunity to manipulate the rules to prevent the delegates from taking control of the convention from the party leadership.

One other key fact is that the tentative rules tend to be drafted to reflect the last battle.  The problem for the Republicans is that the tentative rules for the next convention are the rules for this convention.  Thus, unless they change Rule 12 (as they did at the last convention) to give some power to the RNC to amend the rules, a convention that wishes to change the rules for the next cycle also changes the rules for this cycle.  Both parties tend to overcorrect for the perceived flaws in this nomination cycle in drafting the rules for the next round.  However, the Republicans, by the nature of their rules drafting process, change the rules for the current process in adopting these fixes.  If Cleveland ends up a contested convention, this flaw in the Republican rule process could divide the convention  as we will see in the next several posts.

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