This election year is starting out with a crowded Republican field and a lot of first-time primary voters. It’s wonderful to see new faces in the political process, and folks like me who have been around the block a few times should try to help those people understand as much about the process as possible. To that end, I’m going to walk my fellow Texans through the process, from primary to Republican National Convention. Most of these things work the same way for the Democrats, but to be safe, if you are interested in Democratic primary information, try to contact the Democratic party. I’ll be talking about what I DO know, which is Republican primaries.
First, what’s a Primary?
Before you can have Republicans running against Democrats for anything, you have to decide WHICH Republican will go up against the Democrat. That’s what primaries are for. In Texas, you can choose which party’s primary to vote in – that’s called an Open Primary – meaning you don’t have to register as a member of the party before you vote. You do have to decide which party’s primary you’ll vote in, because you can only choose one.
When you go vote March 1st, you need to look VERY CAREFULLY for your voting location. Republicans and Democrats can hold the same precinct’s primary at different locations. For instance in my neighborhood, Republicans are voting at the HOA Clubhouse, but the Democrats are voting at the library a mile away. I know part of my day as an election judge is going to be spent directing people to other locations, so LOOK UP YOUR POLLING LOC ATION BEFORE YOU GO VOTE. Better yet, go vote early; early vote locations allow you to vote in either party’s primary at any location. And for the most part, the lines are much shorter when you vote early. Trust me – it will save you grief if you just get your voting out of the way before the day of the primary election.
So what is a convention, and how do I go?
Convention is where the local and state Republican leadership is chosen, and it’s also where resolutions are debated and put forward to create the party platform. For Republicans in Texas, there are three levels of conventions in the political election cycle.
- Precinct convention – may be held after the polls close at the primary voting location, or there may be other arrangements – be sure to check with your county party for details
- County (or Senate District) convention – held a few weeks after the primary
- State convention – held May 12-14 in Dallas
You have to participate in some way in each convention to advance to the next convention in the process. The good news is that if you’re interested in going to the Republican State Convention, there’s a really good chance you can do that, even though there are a limited number of delegate spots to get there. Let’s start with what goes on at convention, and what the delegates do.
Precinct convention – to participate in your precinct convention, you need to vote in your precinct’s Republican primary or sign an oath of affiliation that says you are a Republican. That’s really the only qualification.
Once you have done that, you need to find out when and where your specific convention is. In my county (Harris) we will have our precinct conventions after the polls close on primary election night. In the county next door (Fort Bend) they’ve decided to hold their conventions on the same day as their county convention weeks later. I can’t stress enough that you need to contact your county party to make sure you know where and how to participate.
What happens at a precinct convention? Two things, really.
– debate resolutions
– choose the people to advance to the next convention
Here’s how it usually goes, when you’ve got an experienced chair who holds conventions regularly:
- The temporary chair calls the meeting to order
- The temporary chair checks credentials of convention-goers (did they vote in the primary or affirm they are Republican)
- The temporary chair accepts nominations for a permanent chair
- The convention-goers elect a permanent chair to run the rest of the meeting
- The chair appoints a secretary and sergeant at arms
- The chair explains the business of the convention to the convention-goers
- The chair presides over debate on resolutions if any have been offered
- The chair presides over debate on choosing the precinct’s delegates to the county/district convention
- The chair adjourns the convention when all business is concluded
But if there’s nobody present who is running the meeting, what do you do?
YOU run it! It’s really easy. Most counties give the election judges a convention packet. This packet has all the information and forms needed to run the convention. Usually they are as simple as reading a few scripts and signing a few documents. If no one is running a convention in your precinct, you should have everything you need to do it yourself inside that packet.
And it’s important that you DO hold a convention in your precinct if you want to advance to the next convention level. Without the convention and the documents you fill out and return to the party, you might be rejected as a delegate for the district or county convention. That would derail your adventure into conventions before you began it.
Next, I’ll go into the County or District level conventions, what happens there, and what you need to know to get chosen to go to the Texas state convention.
I explained how you can attend your precinct convention in Texas, and how to get chosen to go to the next convention in the series – the County or District convention. So now that you’ve been chosen to advance, let’s take a look at what happens at the next level.
I’m going to refer to the next level as the County Convention from here on, just because I don’t feel like typing ‘County or District’ over and over again. Just know that some counties hold conventions as a whole, and some larger ones may split the conventions into Senate Districts just to keep them manageable.
So you’ve made it to your county convention as a delegate or alternate. What happens now? Quite a lot, really. The convention is often a day long affair – depending on how much business you need to get done – so be prepared to devote the whole day to it.
Even before the day of the county convention, committees have been meeting to get things organized and ready for you. Credentials committees check the lists from the precinct conventions to make sure they have all the names. Arrangements committees make sure precincts are seated together so they can confer easily. Rules committees meet to go over the rules that govern all conventions and drat supplemental rules that the convention might need to adopt. And the Resolutions committees gather up all those resolutions offered in those precinct conventions and turn them into one report that eliminates duplicate resolutions.
The main business of the County convention is similar to the precinct convention:
- Debate and pass resolutions
- Choose delegates to the State convention
If that’s all we’re doing, why does it take so much longer? Because there’s a lot more people in attendance than at a precinct convention. The people running the election have a lot to do to make sure it goes smoothly and successfully. They need to handle administrative issues like:
- Making sure all the people who are attending have the proper credentials
- Counting all the people present by precinct
- Figuring out what constitutes a quorum, the minimum number of people needed to do the convention’s business
- Deciding how to handle any funds that are raised at the convention
- Reading the rules so that everyone knows how voting and other tasks will be handled
- Submitting committee reports to let the convention know what has been done beforehand and which things they need to vote on
So there’s a lot going on, and it’ll often feel like ‘hurry up and wait’ during the day. Just be prepared for that. I’ll have a later post with tips to make the day go smoothly for you.
Each county develops its own method for debating and passing resolutions. Resolutions can take a LONG TIME to deal with as people offer amendments, and then amendments to amendments. No convention can debate EVERYTHING in the resolutions or nobody would ever get to go home. So when you are in your county convention debating the resolutions, keep these things in mind:
- Always state your name and precinct number before you say anything else when you are debating or asking a question. Let people know who you are, and let the CHAIR know who you are. Write down notes on what you mean to say before you speak if possible. Make your point quickly and then stop.
- Your convention is not writing legislation, it’s telling the state party what general issues it wants addressed. If you feel strongly about an item in the resolutions, by all means debate it; but realize that it doesn’t have to be perfect. The issue will go through another round after it leaves your convention, so it’ll come up again.
- NEVER address another speaker when debating. ALWAYS address the chair. I’ll have later post with information on good debate form that will help you have your say.
- If you really feel passionately about a resolution or issue, contact your county party and find out when the Resolutions committee meets BEFORE the County convention. You can testify at those meetings and argue your case, or you can send input to the committee in writing or via e-mail. Don’t wait and hope your issue gets addressed the way you want. Be proactive and go make the case ahead of time.
The Nominations committee draws up the report of the delegates going to the state convention. Each county on some level develops its own process for determining how delegates are chosen. Most often, though, you’ll find that precincts choose some of the delegates and the Nominations committee will fill the rest of the slots. If that’s the case, the precincts will each take a little time during the convention and decide as a group which delegates will advance.
If you’ve come this far and really do want to go to the state convention, here are some things that can help get you there.
- Write down a little political resume on a card or a sheet of paper in case you need to make your case. You should be able to tell others why you ought to be chosen to go to state in a few sentences.
- Volunteer to help at convention. There’s always something to volunteer for, some job that needs doing. Volunteer ahead of the convention and get on a committee. Or volunteer on the day of the event. Talk to the chair or the other members of leadership and offer help where you can. People remember that, and it shows leadership and initiative, things that count when others are evaluating your case to advance to state.
- Don’t hesitate to say that this is your first time to go to convention if it is. Explain why it’s important to you to go, and let others know how eager you are to experience it. Earnestness counts for a lot.
- If your precinct slots fill up and you don’t make the list to go to state, don’t think you’re out of luck. Go talk to the Nominations committee. Some precincts have slots they didn’t fill, and those seats may go back into the hopper to be filled as ‘at-large’ delegates. Make your case to the committee, and you might find yourself headed to Dallas after all.
Next I’ll cover helpful tips for convention, and how to debate like a pro.
If you’re going to conventions, you want to be able to focus on the business at hand and making sure your voice counts in the discussions. Before we talk about attending the state convention, I want to go over some details that might make your experience better. When I attended my first conventions, I didn’t have the first clue. And I didn’t have anyone who marked my card ahead of time, either. It was hard to follow things because I didn’t know what the people were doing, and I didn’t understand some of the words they used. And nobody marked my card ahead of time to warn me, either. But that’s why I’m marking YOUR card. If you enjoy going to convention, it’s more likely you’ll do it again in the future, so let’s talk about those little things no one tells you.
- Bring a friend or two – everything is a little less daunting when you bring along someone you know to convention. You can learn the process at the same time, and you can vote for each other to go to the next level.
- Bring copies of resolutions – If you want to offer resolutions at the precinct convention, bring lots of copies. You’ll want everyone to see what they’re voting on.
- Bring a large tote bag – you’ll accumulate lots of paper during convention, and you’ll want a place to store all the things you’ll be smart enough to bring. A beach bag would not be too big to bring along.
- Bring a drink and a snack – your breaks may not correspond to your usual schedule, so bring along something to tide you over
- Bring something to read or do during downtime – having a book to read or some puzzles to work or games to play can pass the time while you’re waiting for a committee to finish work or for a boring speaker to stop talking. I’m just being honest here – have you HEARD politicians speak? Trust me, bring the book.
- Bring business cards – help people get in touch with you again after convention
- Bring a notebook and pens – you’ll want to be able to make notes of what goes on, keep track of debates, draft your talking points when you speak to an issue, so be prepared for it
- Dress comfortably – there’s quite a lot of moving around, and quite a lot of sitting at convention – wear something nice that you won’t mind wearing all day. Leave the difficult shoes at home.
If you have those bases covered, you’ll be far ahead of where I was when I started going to conventions. You’ll be able to stay focused on the convention’s business instead of fretting over your growling stomach or your aching feet, and you’ll feel more prepared to handle whatever happens. That’s a huge advantage, and it will positively affect your mood, too.
A good chunk of time spent at convention will be devoted to debating resolutions and amendments. You might want to put in your two cents beyond raising your hand to vote. But what if you’ve never done it before? Well, I’m here to walk you through it. There was a time when that microphone intimidated me, and I thought everyone else in the room knew I was a complete rookie. I was passionate about a question before the body, but I was afraid my voice would shake or that I’d sound stupid.
You know what, though? I didn’t really sound dumb at all. I had a good point to make, and I made it – awkwardly, but confidently. And it made a difference. People told me afterwards that they liked what I said, and one person even said they’d never thought about my point before. So don’t sit there in silence if you have something that needs saying. You can get up in front of all those people and make your point. You can speak to that convention and have your voice heard.
- Brush up on your parliamentary procedure – motions, amendments, tabling, calling the question – there’s a lot of debate terminology to learn. However, you don’t have to be an expert to participate. There are videos and articles online that can help you get familiar with a few terms and concepts. There are charts you can download to understand the various motions. And there are good books on the basics, like Idiot’s Guide to Robert’s Rules, which is my favorite. I’ve even recorded a presentation talking about parliamentary procedures, so you can check that out as well (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLp0j3H78BxSQT36dfpMj5KMKHbmvdAJIt). Just know that a little preparation will help make convention much more meaningful. You can print my parliamentary motions guide here:
- Know where the microphones are – many conventions have ‘floor mics’ where people in the body can go to be heard. Make sure you know where they are, and position yourself nearby when you want to address a question. You may have to wait in a line, but it’s easier to get INTO that line when you’re nearby.
- Write your main points down before you speak if possible – try to outline your main point on paper when you can. It keeps you from rambling, which tends to make people tune out, and it makes everything you say sound smarter, so you’re more likely to carry your point in a vote. And the more people who do this, the more resolutions you can debate (or the faster you can all get the business of the convention concluded and go home.)
- State your name and precinct and motion FIRST – ‘Mark Jones, precinct 220, I move to amend the motion by adding the following words…..’ Speaking in this order allows everyone to get the relevant information right up front – who and what. Don’t try to argue the point you’re making until you’ve stated what the point was.
- ALWAYS address the chair – In a convention you are supposed to address the chair rather than each other. If you must refer to another member of the body, use terms like ‘the previous speaker’ and ‘what the last gentleman said’. Addressing the chair keeps things focused on the business, not the personalities. (Side note: this is most likely why it seems weird hearing members of Congress talking about ‘my good friend’ or ‘the honored gentleman across the aisle’ when you know they’re no such thing. They talk like that on the floor for this same reason.)
- Know the rules of debate in your convention – the Rules committee has worked out and submitted rules governing debate, and their Rules committee report is likely one of the first things passed by the convention. Make sure you understand it. If debate is limited to fifteen minutes per section of the report, focus on the most important changes you need to address, rather than bogging debate down in minutiae. If debate is limited to three speakers for a motion and three against, realize that you won’t likely get a chance to speak to it if ten people are in line at the microphone already.
We made a video about all this here:
Hopefully this information will help you feel like a veteran convention-goer before you even walk through the door. One of the main reasons I wrote it all out is that I fervently wish someone had done it for me rather than having to learn the hard way.
Next, I will talk about what to expect at the state convention.
So you’ve been through the precinct and county conventions, and you still haven’t had enough? You’re ready to take on the state convention? Let’s get right to it.
At State convention, thousands of Texas Republicans gather to draw up the state platform, pass party rules for the next two years, choose leadership, and in presidential years, select delegates to the Republican National Convention. It takes a few days to do all this because there are so many people from so many parts of the state involved. It’s a HUGE endeavor, but I’m going to try to break it down for you a bit. We’ll start with some terms.
General Session – the meeting of the entire body in the convention hall. All the delegates are in attendance for these, where they debate and vote on things like rules and the platform and other reports from committees
Caucus – meetings of groups based on their region; at convention there are Senate District caucuses each time, and in presidential years, Congressional District caucuses. Each caucus will meet several times during convention, and make group decisions that will be reported to the party in the General Sessions.
Committees – Temporary committees meet the full week of convention to prepare reports on Rules and Credentials and the Platform, among other things. The permanent committees finish the work of the temporary committees and report to the general sessions.
SO WHAT HAPPENS AT STATE?
When you arrive at the state convention, the first thing you’ll do is register and pick up your credentials. There will also be a program that has the schedule and locations or all the meetings you’ll attend. That program will become your best friend for the next few days. Open it up immediately and bookmark the pages with maps, schedules, and events. You can thank me later.
Follow the schedule as much as you can, and try to be early or on time for each caucus or general session. Look for your seat in the appropriate section – delegates or alternates. Note who sits next to you and make friends – you’ll be seeing a lot of each other. If you’re a delegate, you’re going to be assigned a seat in most meetings; and if you aren’t in your place when the meeting starts, your spot can be filled for that meeting by an alternate. It’s not a permanent swap, but you may have to sit further back and lose the right to vote on issues in the meeting until you can regain your seat.
Aside from caucuses and general sessions, there are other things going on during convention that you can check out. The exhibit hall has vendors and candidate booths and usually food options. The permanent committees meet during conventions in their own meeting rooms. When business is concluded for the day, there are numerous groups and candidates and elected officials hosting events in nearby hotels. You can literally spend sixteen hour days straight in convention meetings and gatherings if you choose. And each event is an opportunity to network with people from around the state, so take advantage of it!
WHAT DECISIONS ARE MADE?
Each caucus and meeting and general session has a purpose.
Senate District Caucuses – In SD caucuses, members vote on several things:
- members to the permanent committees – the people who have represented the district for the week in Rules, Credentials, Platform and other committees are nominated to take their place on the permanent committees for each. Usually this is a rubber stamp, but not always. Challenges to temporary committee members do happen on occasion.
- State Republican Executive Committee members – Every SD has 2 SRECs – a man and a woman. Each convention, there’s an election in the SD caucuses for the two places.
- State Chair and Vice Chair – the RPT chair and vice chair are elected in the SD caucuses. Each caucus decides their pick for the positions, and the result is reported as a single vote. So with 31 SDs, it takes 16 caucuses to win the chair or vice chair spot.
Congressional District Caucuses – the CDs only meet in presidential years, and they have two main jobs. First, they vote on the Republican National Committee (RNC) man and woman, and second, they choose delegates for the Republican National Convention. The CDs also choose someone to represent their Congressional District on the Nominations Committee, but more on that committee in a bit.
The RNC campaigns (and chair campaigns for that matter) are usually in full swing well before the convention. You might even get mail from the candidates ahead of time. These candidates are likely to sit on the RNC for a loooooooong time due to a rule change in recent years, so make sure you learn about the candidates before you vote. When you complain about the RNC, THESE are the people you’re complaining about. Make sure you send good ones.
Each CD can elect 3 delegates and 3 alternates to the Republican National Convention. This means nominations and speeches an election, and a lot of time. This also means that some people will want to run a ‘slate’ of candidates that they think are most worthy to go to National.
The great thing is that you don’t have to vote for a slate at all. You can make up your own mind. You can even put your own name forward for a seat. If you do, be prepared to have someone nominate you and line up a few people to speak on your behalf. Jot down notes for your own speech, too. You might even want to circulate your political resume around the caucus to let people know who you are and why you should be chosen to go.
People who didn’t get chosen in the CDs have another chance to become a delegate, but it’s kind of slim. They can go to the Nominations Committee and lobby to be added to their list of At-Large delegates. Most members of the Nominations Committee have friends and allies they intend to support already, but you can still get a hearing from some of the committee members. Still, your best chance is to make your case to the CD as a whole. Talk to people there, be friendly, make allies, and you’ll have a much better chance of winning a seat there.
Finally, I’ll discuss the general sessions.
You’re at State convention, you’re clued in on the caucuses that happen there, but what about the general sessions? What goes on there? Speeches, debates, speeches, voting, and more speeches. And speeches. There will be many, many speeches. You have been warned.
Amid all the speeches, however, there’s some important business to attend to. Here are some things that will happen on the floor of the State convention that you’ll want to know about.
The Credentials Report – Early in the convention, the Credentials committee brings their report up for adoption. This is the report detailing all the delegates who can be seated. Sometimes there is a challenge: someone thinks they were improperly excluded from the lists, or someone’s paperwork was misread or mislaid. This report is where the committee attempts to fix those issues. This happens early in a general session for a very good reason. In order to do the business of the convention, you need to have all the delegates properly recognized. This report makes it official that the delegates in attendance are credentialed and allowed under the rules to conduct the convention business. Once it’s adopted, official business can be conducted.
The Rules Report – Once the Rules committee has finished its report, the committee chair will bring that up to the whole body for adoption. There’s usually some debate about certain sections of the report, so you’ll want to look the report over to make sure you’re able to follow along. Issues that may factor into debate could be things like term limits for leadership, recording meetings, and whether the RPT chair and vice chair are required to be of opposite genders. Those issues have all come up before on the floor, but you never know what will be the hot topic from year to year.
Nominations for State Chair and Vice Chair – Even though the business of electing the state party leadership is done in the Senate District caucuses, the formal nominations are made (along with speeches – DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU) on the floor in the general session. You’ll hear from the candidates and get a look at them before you get to vote on them in your caucus. Once those votes take place, the results will be reported in the general session as well.
Nominations for Republican National Committeeman and Committeewoman – Similar to the state chair and vice chair positions, the RNC committee members are chosen in the Congressional District caucuses, but the nominating speeches are made in the general session. (Again, with speeches. Which you’ll also hear in the caucuses, I promise.) Voting will take place in the Congressional caucuses, and the results reported in the general session.
The Platform Committee Report – This is where the general session gets crazy. Everyone has some problem with the platform. It’s too long. It’s too specific. It’s silent on serious issues. It’s outdated. It spends too much time on trivia. It doesn’t go far enough in condemning something awful. It spends too little attention on serious issues of the day. It contradicts itself. The criticism goes on and on.
What you should know about the Platform Committee Report is the following:
- YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE HAPPY WITH EVERYTHING IN THE PLATFORM – Trust me. Read the 2014 report at the RPT website if you don’t believe me – because that’s likely going to be the baseline for the 2016 report.
- MANY MANY PEOPLE ARE SERIOUSLY INVESTED IN THE PLATFORM – They will lobby you, they will pass out fliers explaining their positions, they will call people who hold other views nasty names. Expect this. I could even make a game of this and create BINGO cards for the report.
- DEBATE ON THE PLATFORM WILL TAKE A LONG TIME – This is where your snacks and a book come in handy, if you aren’t passionate about a particular section. Or you can spend the time lobbying for support for another position that will come up later in the report. Just expect downtime and slow periods during debate.
- GET TO A MICROPHONE IF YOU WANT TO SPEAK – all the same advice applies when trying to address an issue at the general session. Know what you want to say, state your name and Senate District, and make your point quickly. Hundreds of other people want to have their say at the microphones, too. But remember, the Rules report explained the limits of debate (including things like number of speakers etc.) so even if you stand in line a long time to debate, you may not get to speak. This is why attending committees is far better for getting your views heard BEFORE they are voted on from the floor.
- IMMIGRATION WILL BE THE HOT TOPIC – there will be all manner of materials circulated about the immigration plank of the platform. There will be booths dealing with the issue in the Exhibit Hall. Make sure you know the various positions before you vote on them. And be prepared for nastiness on this more than any other issue.
The Nominations Committee Report – The Nominations report lists all the delegates chosen in caucuses and committee who are going to the Republican National Convention. This happens at the very end of convention, and if you want to attend the national convention, you need to be sure your name is on this list before the report is adopted. This should be one of the last orders of business before the body, so be sure you stay for it.
There are more things that go on during the general sessions, but those are the most noteworthy, and the ones for which you ought to be well prepared.
A few additional tips before I conclude:
Most votes will be held by voice vote. This gives the advantage to men with big lungs. You should be aware of that. Sometimes if a voice vote is unclear, someone may ask the chair, or the chair may himself call, for a ‘division of the house’ or a standing vote. In that case, the chair will judge by sight rather than sound whether a vote passes or fails, eyeballing whether the vote is more decisive when people are standing.
Occasionally, there is no good way to tell without actually counting votes. This is when a Roll Call vote is requested, and everyone in the convention hates it. Everyone has to be in their proper seats as delegates on the floor, and everyone has to vote individually. District chairs have to count all the yeas and nays, and report those to the chair. It takes forever. And it’s sometimes used as a tactic to exhaust people into adopting reports when there is still substantive debate to be had. After all, near the end of convention, everyone is tired and wants to go home. But in spite of its bad reputation, the roll call vote does make things more fair in important votes. It should be used sparingly if at all, but it does have its place in the general session.
Stay until the very end of the convention. It may be inconvenient, but plan to stick it out until the last vote is taken and the convention is adjourned ‘sine die’ (without day) meaning that it is finished and dissolved. Make sure all the hard work you did is final and the votes you took are locked in. Then go home and tell everyone what a fabulous time you had.
See you at convention!
Watch RNC Committeewoman Toni Anne Dashiell explain the delegate process for National Convention: