Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Proposed Missouri LP resolution against the national convention poll tax

As a district representative on the Missouri Libertarian Party's executive committee, I've asked the party's chair to add the following resolution to the agenda for the committee's next meeting:

Whereas, the national bylaws of the Libertarian Party set forth the qualifications of delegates to the party's national convention; and

Whereas, those bylaws do not provide for the assessment or collection of any fee from delegates as a condition of floor access or full participation in business sessions; and

Whereas, the delegate apportionment formula specified in the bylaws is primarily based on the number of sustaining, i.e. dues-paying, national party members in each state;

Be it resolved that:

The Missouri Libertarian Party opposes in principle the assessment of "registration fees" or other charges to delegates for floor access and participation in the business sessions; and

The Missouri Libertarian Party calls upon the Libertarian National Committee to adopt a policy of routine budgeting from sustaining membership dues for the provision of meeting facilities for its national conventions;

The Missouri Libertarian Party calls upon the Libertarian National Committee to require that activities and facilities related to the party's national conventions but not part of the bylaws-mandated business sessions be self-supporting on the basis of payments from willing customers or sponsors rather than on the basis of subsidies extracted from delegates.

Similar resolutions are under consideration by several other state parties. If yours isn't one of them, please feel free to season the above to taste and move it at your next ex comm meeting or state convention.

One reason I'm publicly posting this is to go ahead and dispose of some of the arguments I expect to hear versus the resolution. Another is to help other concerned Libertarians in other states do likewise. I'll do so after the jump -- not all at once, but in successive updates as I get around to it.

Myth #1: Robert's Rules of Order authorizes a "registration fee"

It doesn't. Period. Full stop.

The reference to registration fees in Robert's Rules of Order, 10th edition (the parliamentary authority for the Libertarian National Committee on matters not covered by the bylaws) appears on page 593 in the section dealing with the credentials committee's duties:

c) Recording of the member as officially registered, upon his paying the registration fee (which is sometimes sent in in advance) and signing the list of registrations;

Note carefully that this section uses the definite article: Not "a" registration fee, but "the" registration fee. That's not an authorization for levying "a" fee -- it's an allusion to "the" fee that Robert's assumes is elsewhere authorized. In the case of the LP/Libertarian National Committee, the assumption that a fee is elsewhere authorized happens to be incorrect. The LP's bylaws explicitly delineate qualifications for serving as a delegate, and payment of a registration fee is not among those qualifications.

Myth #2: Subsidies

Some supporters of the poll tax have characterized the poll tax as merely a method of forcing delegates to "pay for a share of the conference facilities." If we don't do so, they say, we're forcing the dues-paying members to "subsidize" the delegates.

This claim ignores the definition of "delegate," the source of the delegates' authority, and the duties of the LNC.

A "delegate" is a representative.

The delegates to the LP's national convention represent the party's sustaining members (delegate allocation is explicitly based on sustaining membership numbers). Those sustaining members pay $25 in annual dues to the party, and in return for that payment one of the things they are entitled to is a biennial business meeting ("convention") at which their interests are represented.

One duty of the LNC is to provide that convention.

There is no duty of a delegate to make good on the LNC's failure to budget for its obligations.

Delegates are volunteers, representing the membership and doing the party's work -- and at their own travel, lodging and food expense to boot. Not charging them to cover the LNC's bad spending decisions is not "subsidizing" them, any more than not charging LPHQ's staff rent for the office in which they work would be.

The poll tax ("registration fee;" "floor fee") is the real subsidy. The convention is the business meeting -- nothing else. All of the surrounding circus activities -- luxury hotels, speeches, banquets, etc. -- are nice, but they aren't the convention, and they should be financially self-supporting on the basis of voluntary customer purchase, not subsidized by taxing delegates for the "privilege" of doing the party's work. The poll tax is an attempt to make the party's delegates pay for other people's pleasures.

Myth #3: The myth that the poll tax's proponents have thus far dared not utter

The myth, in as few words as possible, is "the fee is legal."

See Morse v. the Republican Party of Virginia. The courts have ruled against poll taxes. The courts have ruled that charging a fee to vote on the floor of a party presidential nominating convention is a poll tax. The courts have ruled that charging a fee to vote on the floor of a party convention at which internal officers are elected is a poll tax.

Does that constitute an airtight case against the poll tax? Nope -- there's no such thing. Precedents can always be overturned.

It does, however, constitute a good case. The Libertarian National Convention poll tax ("registration fee;" "floor fee") will very likely go down if a delegate decides to litigate the matter, or even seek an advisory opinion from the Federal Elections Commission.

Personally, I loathe the idea of bringing the government into the party's internal affairs. It would be ugly, it would be costly and frankly it would be dysfunction on display. That's why I'd prefer for the state parties to exert pressure on the national committee to do the right thing without all that nastiness becoming necessary.

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