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No, the DNC Didn't Rig the Primaries


There’s a resilient meme going around that the Democratic National Committee–the national organization for the Democratic Party–“rigged” the primary elections to ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory. The recent DNC email leaks and subsequent fallout are cited as “evidence” of this. Is there anything to it, really?

I’m going to assume that, if you’re reading this, you’re a reasonable person reading in good faith and expect to be treated like a rational, thinking adult. This means that you understand nuance, and that impropriety is not the same as corruption is not the same as criminality. It’s a complex situation, but some aspects of it are easy to boil down, so I’ll do that first.

Did the DNC behave neutrally with regard to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? No. The DNC took steps that showed favoritism toward Clinton.

Doesn’t this mean they rigged the primaries? No. But let me be clear about what I mean by “rigged”: ballot stuffing, strategic purges of voter rolls, systematic disenfranchisement, voter intimidation, ballot theft/alteration/destruction, disinformation meant to keep Sanders supporters from voting, and similar measures should all qualify as “rigging.”

But didn’t the DNC apologize? Yes. Let’s have the full text of the apology:

“On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic party for inexcusable remarks made over email. These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not — and will not — tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates. Individual staffers have also rightfully apologized for their comments, and the DNC is taking appropriate action to ensure it never happens again.
We are embarking on a convention today that — thanks to the great efforts of Secretary Clinton, her team, Senator Sanders, his team, and the entire Democratic Party — will show a forward-thinking and optimistic vision for America, as compared to the dark and pessimistic vision that the GOP presented last week in Cleveland. Our focus is on electing Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and Democrats across the country, thanks to Democratic Party that is strong, unified, and poised for victory in November.”

The “inexcusable remarks” and “comments” in question come from a handful of leaked emails–half a dozen or so of the roughly 20,000 stolen by Russian hackers and released by WikiLeaks. Likewise, Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down from her position as DNC chair because of this leak and the anti-Sanders remarks.

What did not happen was an exposure of the DNC (or Wasserman Schultz) rigging the process to ensure a Clinton victory.

But let’s take the accusations at face value. What are they? I’ll use a US Uncut list, as it seems to cover the most common allegations.

1. Scheduling primary debates to garner as few viewers as possible

The debate schedule, in terms of the number of debates, was more or less in alignment with 2008. The timing of the debates, however, does look calculated to ensure low viewership. Is this improper? It did not explicitly favor or disfavor either candidate, however a candidate with more name recognition (such as Clinton) would ultimately benefit less from this kind of exposure than a relative unknown like Sanders.

Does this amount to a violation of the DNC’s neutrality mandate? Strictly speaking, no. But it was unnecessary and petty and created suspicion where none needed to exist.

2. Grassroots Clinton field offices co-located at DNC offices

The only source I can find for this claim is a single VICE article and an endless number of other sites citing it.

There are two problems with this claim. The first is that there is only this one example. The second is that the DNC–the national organization–does not control what state and local Democratic Party offices do. It is possible the Carson City Democratic Party offered the Clinton campaign office space but didn’t offer any to Sanders? Sure. Does this signal broader bad behavior within the national DNC? You’d have to bring more evidence.

3. Dismantling Bernie Sanders’ campaign over one staffer’s mistake

This claim gets around quite a bit. The short version is, a Sanders staffer exploited a flaw in the campaign management software both campaigns used, and temporarily had access to private information held by the Clinton campaign, including voter lists. This information was illicitly extracted before the breach was reported and addressed. The DNC had the Sanders’ campaign access to the software revoked.

The Sanders campaign swiftly fired the staffer responsible, and the DNC soon caved to outside pressure to reinstate the campaign’s access. Whether revoking access for any length of time was an appropriate penalty can be a matter of debate. I think it was entirely appropriate given that a breach was not just found, but exploited with the intention of benefiting the Sanders campaign. The DNC had no way to be sure the information obtained wouldn’t be used to the Sanders campaign’s advantage.

Did this incident damage Sanders’ chances? Given that their access was revoked for about a day–very likely not. The DNC possibly overreacted, but again, the suggestion that this incident was deliberately exploited to harm the Sanders campaign is baseless. Notably, there are no DNC communications which indicate anything of the sort.

4. DNC finance chair caught raising money for Clinton

This one is true, without qualification, and was widely reported. Not much to say except that it was in clear contravention of party rules.

5. The DNC lined up superdelegates for Clinton before first debate

This claim is nonsense for a very simple reason: superdelegates are completely unbound and uncommitted and can vote however they like at the convention, so it doesn’t really matter what they say or do beforehand. They can change their minds at any time.

The DNC shouldn’t have been bothering to line anyone up so early, in any case. Even so, this couldn’t impact the final outcome because the superdelegates would have voted for the majority candidate either way.

Let’s get to the obvious question, though: what’s up with the “impartiality” rule, anyway? Where did it come from and what does it really mean?

You can read it in the DNC charter here. I’ll quote the relevant section:

In the conduct and management of the affairs and procedures of the Democratic National Committee, particularly as they apply to the preparation and conduct of the Presidential nomination process, the Chairperson shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness as between the Presidential candidates and campaigns. The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and evenhandedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process.

Seems pretty straightforward. The rule clearly applies not just to the Chairperson (who would have been Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the time), but also the officers and staff of the national organization.

Here’s the thing about charter bylaws, though: they’re suggestions, tantamount to what you’d find in a corporate policy handbook, and enforced as such. If the Chairperson didn’t want to enforce them, the rest of the board can either move to eject her, or go along with it. By and large, they ignored the rule, and this was a mistake. Either the rule should’ve been amended out of the charter, or followed clearly. The DNC shouldn’t pretend to be impartial when it isn’t.

Does this mean the DNC stole the election for Clinton? No. This narrative is vicious in the way it implies Hillary Clinton could never have won without the party intervening on her behalf. The fact of the matter is that Clinton maintained a healthy lead throughout the primaries–a lead large enough that the party could only have manufactured it through very blatant vote rigging, and there’s no evidence of that. Clinton won because she got more votes–period.

As for Debbie Wasserman Schultz taking up an honorary co-chair position in the Clinton campaign immediately after her resignation as Chairperson: note the word “honorary.” It’s a face-saving move with no real power or influence. The optics of this are admittedly bad, but still not a sign that Clinton and the DNC colluded to ensure she won. Rather, it’s Clinton helping a disgraced friend.

By no means do I think Wasserman Schultz has been a good leader, either. Her stewardship over the DNC has been mediocre at best, with the GOP beating Democratic fundraising time after time before the Presidential season got underway. It was long past time for new leadership.

I don’t doubt that there are people who will always believe the DNC stole the election for Clinton, and used far more underhanded methods than are publicly known. The problem is a lack of evidence. I’m someone who strongly believes in evidence–if you are alleging bad behavior, you need to prove it, and not just with implications and speculation. There is certainly evidence that the DNC failed to uphold its commitment to impartiality. But did they rig the election for Clinton?

The answer to that is simple and clear: Nope.

Photo by irrational_cat