On Nov 6, 2017, I got an email from “Bernie Sanders” about how the Democratic Party must change. He listed four points.
Make the Democratic Party more democratic and the presidential contests more fair by dramatically reducing the number of superdelegates who participate in the nominating process. It is absurd that in the last presidential primary over 700 superdelegates (almost one-third of the delegates a candidate needed to win the nomination) had the power to ignore the will of the people who voted in the state primaries and caucuses.
I wanted some facts about superdelegates, so I looked up information on Wikipedia, where I found that superdelegates were 15% of the vote at the Nat’l Convention (716 of 4767). The email is clever enough to say 30% of the number needed to nominate.
In 2016 a simple majority of 2,383 delegates was needed to win the presidential nomination, so superdelegates represented 30% of the number needed to win the nomination and Bernie is correct that superdelegates constituted “almost one-third” of the number needed to win. He is also correct that they have the “power” to ignore the results of primaries and caucuses.
Is that as “undemocratic” as it sounds? Here’s how I see it: Elections are fairer and more representative than caucuses or elections within a political party. The number of people who attend precinct and county Democratic Party conventions is miniscule compared to the number of people who vote. I have argued that our local Democratic Party doesn’t really have the right to claim that its platform represents anyone else but ourselves (no one listened to me). I have no experience with party caususes, but most of them strike me as representing far smaller numbers than elections do; correct me if I’m mistaken.
Given my views, here’s how I classify the superdelegates in 2016:
Not very representative superdelegates
These superdelegates have not won “real” elections but only those inside the Democratic Party:
- 437 elected members (with 433 votes) from the Democratic National Committee (including the chairs and vice-chairs of each state’s Democratic Party)
This represents 9.1% of total delegates, 18.3% of delegates needed to nominate.
Fairly representative superdelegates
Most of the following types of superdelegates have won elections where people of all parties can vote:
- 20 distinguished party leaders (DPL), consisting of current and former presidents, current and former vice-presidents, former congressional leaders, and former DNC chairs
- 191 Democratic members of the United States House of Representatives (including non-voting delegates from DC and territories)
- 47 Democratic members of the United States Senate (including Washington, DC shadow senators)
- 21 Democratic governors (including territorial governors and the Mayor of the District of Columbia).
These 282 superdelegates represent 5.9% of total delegates, 11.8% of delegates needed to nominate.
In sum, I agree that the less representative superdelegates should be eliminated, but not that the others should be as well. That’s one reason that I don’t think that the 2016 nomination was “rigged” enough to make a difference in the outcome. I reject Sanders’ supporters who equate caucuses with elections.
Note: The superdelegate system is indeed intended to dilute the power of primary elections, but remember that the Democratic Party had made nominations very representative in reaction to Humphrey’s nomination in 1968, when he had not run in a single primary. Then voters (like me) used primaries to nominate George McGovern, who went on to perhaps the worst defeat in Presidential election history. The Party then moved back, not unreasonably, to more superdelegates. (I don’t think that there is a good technical solution here.)
Bernie urges us to
Make primaries more open by ending the absurdity of closed primary systems with antiquated, arbitrary and discriminatory voter registration laws. Republicans are the ones who make it harder for people to vote, not Democrats. At a time when more and more people consider themselves to be Independents our job is to bring people into the Democratic Party process, not exclude them. It is incredibly undemocratic that in some states voters must declare their party affiliation up to six months before the primary election.
The writing here, a hodge-podge of arguments, is wonderfully subtle, vetted by lawyers no doubt.
I’m pretty sure that voter registration laws are dictated by state legislatures. Does Sanders think that the NC Dems can tell our legislature what to do?
It seems to me that a party’s “job” is whatever it wants it to be. I lived in Texas when Republicans crossed over to vote in Democratic Primaries for Lloyd Benson, successfully removing Ralph Yarborough, a wonderfully liberal Democratic Senator from office. Why should the thousands of Texans who had worked to nominate Yarborough for our party not be able to say who got to vote in their primary?
Sanders is probably correct that letting Independents vote in primaries (as we can in NC) probably helps reach out to non-party members, but that’s a matter of strategy, not an “undemocratic” moral failing IMNSHO.
As for dates when people can register to vote, NC Democratic legislators had passed one of the country’s most progressive laws, allowing people to vote during early voting up to a few days before elections. Guess what’s happened to those laws? Why does Sanders bring this issue up in a letter entitled Revitalizing the Democratic Party asking me to contribute to Bernie Sanders and not to the Democratic Party? It feels as if he’s saying that the Democratic Party created this problem.
Increase voter participation
Make it easier for working people and students to participate in state caucuses. While there is much to be said for bringing people together face-to-face in a caucus to discuss why they support the candidate of their choice, not everybody is able to attend those caucuses at the time they are held. A process must be developed that gives everyone the right to cast a vote even if they are not physically able to attend a state caucus.
I’m puzzled that he doesn’t advocate doing away with caucuses altogether in favor of elections? Is it because he had more luck with caucuses? Why does Bernie hate democracy? (Okay, okay…. sorry).
Increase Party Transparency
Finally Sanders writes:
Make the DNC's budget and decision-making processes more open and transparent. If we are going to build a Party that relies on working people who are willing to give $5, $10 and $27 donations, they deserve to know where that money is going and how those decisions are made.
I don’t know much about this issue. Are party budgets really secret? It seems to me that an awful lot is known from campaign contribution reports, for example here.