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Democrats Strip Superdelegates’ Presidential Nomination Power – Is That a Good Idea?

by Countable | 8.29.18

  • The Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted last weekend to curtail the power of superdelegates significantly and to make presidential caucuses more accessible, overcoming objections from a vocal minority of its membership.
  • The change will prohibit superdelegates from voting for president at the party’s 2020 convention, unless the outcome is already assured or it deadlocks, which hasn’t happened in decades. 

Why it matters: History

The current system for selecting presidential nominees was established after the 1968 election, when Democrats made Hubert Humphrey the nominee despite the fact that he’d failed to win a single primary.

Since then, most delegates to party conventions have been bound to follow the popular will and support the winner of their state’s primary or caucus. However, in the 2016 election, of the 4,763 Democratic delegates, around 15 percent were superdelegates, who could support any candidate they chose and switch their support at any time, right up to the actual nomination.

The vast majority of superdelegates sided with Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. Clinton also won the overall popular vote in the primaries, so these rule changes, had they been implemented then, would not likely have changed the outcome.

Theoretically, superdelegates could change the results of a nominating process, but in practice they rarely have. 

The Republican Party doesn’t use superdelegates in the same way. Its delegates are bound to reflect the voters’ will.

Why it matters: Now

The reform package, pushed by DNC Chairman Tom Perez and allies of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others, passed overwhelmingly by voice vote. Politico notes:

“While long a priority of Sanders and his supporters, the effort to reduce superdelegates’ clout was embraced more broadly in recent months by Democratic Party officials desperate to win over young voters skeptical of centralized party power.”

The new rules will also make caucuses more accessible by pushing state parties to accept absentee votes, rather than requiring physical attendance.

The DNC can’t force states to change their rules, but the reform package includes measures to encourage states to open their primaries and caucuses to independent voters, as well as to expand same-day voter registration in order to bring new voters.

What they’re saying

Larry Taylor, a superdelegate himself, said in 2016:

"I don't think my vote ... should invalidate the vote of thousands of voters."

The Huffington Post explains why some Democratic Party leaders say that the changes would disenfranchise minorities:

“The argument, presented chiefly by veteran black officials such as 2016 Democratic National Convention Committee CEO Leah Daughtry and former DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile, is that, after decades of hard work climbing into the halls of power, black Americans enjoy stronger representation among the ranks of superdelegates than ever before. Their presence in Democratic officialdom ensures black influence on the presidential nominating process even if ordinary, ‘pledged’ convention delegates do not.”

A piece in the Daily Intelligencer ponders whether the DNC is doing this at precisely the wrong time, noting superdelegates’ capacity “to deliver a coup de grâce to stubborn losers,” as they have done once before. The piece observes that there are as many as 33 potential candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination, and that superdelegates can help winnow the field and allow front-runners to advance.

Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, says:

“Like so many other institutions, they’re catering to their critics and fighting the last war.”

A Politico Magazine piece opposes the change:

“There are some circumstances where the ‘will of the voters’—often the will of a plurality of voters—may well put the party on the road to a massive political defeat. Further, it may result in the nomination of a candidate who violates the most fundamental beliefs of that party. Or whose temperament and character might put a dangerous, unfit person into the Oval Office. Under those circumstances, the existence of a bloc of superdelegates means the presence of an ‘emergency brake,’ a last chance to avoid disaster. And while it may be ‘undemocratic’ in the narrowest sense of that term, our political system is replete with ‘undemocratic’ elements that have served us very well.”

What do you think?

Should superdelegates have less power? Hit Take Action to tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Photo Credit: iStock.com / andriano_cz

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