Virtue and a virtual convention


The Wyoming Republican Party held the first session of its annual convention last week. I was present, sort of. The term, “convention,” means “coming together.” But in these days of the coronavirus, conventions are strictly forbidden. It tortures language to say otherwise.

Over the past two months, practically everyone has learned a new term. It is the so-called “Zoom meeting.” Wyoming’s school children, from preschoolers to postgraduate students, have learned to navigate the Zoom platform. Others are using platforms like Digitell, GoToMeeting, and Skype.

These platforms all purport to bring people together without the cost of travel, the inconvenience of leaving home and now, the chance of contracting the novel coronavirus. These clear advantages, however, come at a high cost. Not the least of which is that they don’t actually bring people together.

Everyone who has ever participated in a Zoom “meeting” has known, personally, the shortcomings of this novel idea. In every such “meeting” there is always one participant who forgets to mute his or her microphone so that conversation is dominated by a barking dog, a crying child, or a flushing toilet. These are the comical kinds of Zoom shortcomings. They frustrate clear conversation and leave the meeting’s chair helpless to keep order.

The more serious deficiencies involve the loss of human touch. There can be no tapping your seat-mate on the shoulder, looking directly into his or her eye, or quietly discussing during a lull in the action. Lost are hallway conversations and the ability to eavesdrop on various candidates as they answer questions from other conventioneers.

These observations are not meant as complaints, but as reality checks. After two months of experience, we have all learned that Zoom “meetings” will never be a viable substitute for actual meetings. After all, by definition, a virtual “meeting” possesses some of the “virtues” of a meeting but is not a meeting in “in actual fact” (See Merriam-Webster). We must keep this reality in mind so that we do not expect a virtual “meeting” to do what it is not capable of doing.

Leaders in the Republican Party recognized this reality early on and responded with two strategies. First, they split the business of the convention into two parts: one that could be attempted virtually and one that could not. They decided that it was simply not feasible to debate resolutions, platform amendments and other deliberative business of the convention. This would have to be done in person, at a later date.

The time-sensitive nature of election to national offices forced convention planners to find a way to do convention business online. However, even this could not be done without major rules changes. Robert’s Rules of Order simply never contemplated convening a convention that was never convened.

Changes to the rules and leniency in their enforcement were required even for the county conventions to elect delegates for the state convention. These rules changes were approved by national party leadership and put as the first item of business at every county convention. They were passed with little discussion. Few contemplated the unintended consequences that would follow.

At the center of decorum for convention delegates is the secret ballot. Open voting on personnel matters can seriously hinder the preservation of healthy working relationships. When people are actually together in one place, there are well-established and time-tested rules that allow ballots to be handled with complete accountability while also keeping the identity of each voter confidential.

One of the casualties of a virtual “meeting” is that those rules must be modified. Depending on how the rules are modified, confidentiality can be lost, or ballot integrity compromised. There exists no virtual way to keep both at the highest standards. That reality dominated the day.

The Credentials Committee met the previous day to verify the results of 23 county elections. At that meeting, objections were raised about the elections at three of them. After hours of testimony and discussion, the Credentials Committee judged that irregularities at two of the counties were within acceptable bounds, but that the Natrona County election was not. On the narrowest of votes, it decided to report that those delegates are not seated.

Approval of the Credentials Report is always the first order of the day, and usually uncontroversial. Not so last Saturday. Immediately, there was a motion to amend the credentials report to include the delegates disqualified by the committee.

This motion forced the convention to take up deliberative business—the very thing that virtual “meetings” are most ill-equipped to do. After three hours of cumbersome debate and heroic leadership by the chair, the motion was adopted.

The Casper Star Tribune quickly posted an article titled, “GOP infighting culminates in attempt to block Natrona County from state convention.” This headline is the opposite of the truth. The culmination was that the GOP convention seated the delegates giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Responsible reporting would have included the fact that the GOP spent three hours in good-faith discussion. Delegates wanted to know the nature of the rules violations and the reasons for them. They wanted to weigh the gravity of the irregularities against the gravity of not seating the delegates.

Many began to see that, under the coronavirus circumstances, the scrupulous standards of years past were not possible. Some even concluded that strict adherence to standards written for in-person conventions, would prevent even this state convention from conducting the business of the day.

After that vote, the convention spent the next three hours finalizing and explaining the ballot that would be the main purpose of the convention. Every question that could be asked was asked multiple times.

When the balloting was opened, technical difficulties were painstakingly addressed by email and voice for more than an hour. Only after another hour had passed with no additional technical issues raised were the final tabulations made.

In the highest irony of the day, the announcement of election results brought questions identical to those raised about Natrona County’s election. Did all the ballots cast make it into the hands of the counters? Or, were some possibly lost? Once again, the good faith efforts to maintain a secret ballot made it impossible to answer this question to the satisfaction of everyone.

The moral of this story is two-fold.

First, it is time that we put to rest the fantasy that virtual “meetings” can ever be real meetings at all. God made us bodily people for a purpose. Even the wonders of modern communication can never substitute for being face to face with teachers, co-workers, family or party. I am absolutely longing for the second session when the Wyoming GOP can actually meet in Gillette.

Second, every community ultimately depends on integrity and trust. No number of procedural rules can ever compensate for a lack of good faith. Conversely, no number of technical glitches can undermine confidence when every individual is acting with integrity and honor.

That is why I count the Wyoming Republican Party Convention to be a success in the face of high challenges. I, personally, know the people who worked tirelessly to create the best and fairest environment possible under the circumstances. They are people of integrity, skill, and good sense. I thank God for their leadership.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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