Democrats discuss whether to do away with 'superdelegates'

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Friday, May 21, 2010; 10:18 PM

National Democrats began a formal debate Friday over whether to do away with "superdelegates," a system that gives special voting rights to prominent party members and that came in for criticism during the 2008 primaries.

Ordinary delegates must line up during the presidential nominating convention with the candidate who won their state. But about 850 party leaders -- among them House members, senators, state governors and members of the Democratic National Committee -- may cast their ballots for whomever they choose.

These superdelegates, or unpledged delegates, acted as de facto tie-breakers in the close 2008 primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The system was criticized by some because of the possibility that the superdelegates might tip the scale away from the nominee backed by a majority of Democratic voters.

A panel, appointed by Chairman Tim Kaine, has recommended largely doing away with the current system. Former superdelegates would retain some of their influence in that they would be allowed to abstain from the nomination vote.

The proposal was greeted Friday with skepticism by many members of the DNC's rules committee, all of whom are superdelegates themselves. Many said they would support reducing the number of superdelegates but were reluctant to endorse a change that could force some sitting lawmakers to have to vote against themselves, and some prominent activists to vote against their conscience.

"Sen. Kennedy chose to come out for a candidate when his state was for another candidate," said committee member Mame Reiley, a political consultant, referring to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's decision to back Obama. "I worry that we're wanting leaders to follow instead of lead."

Reiley supported Clinton even though Virginia Democrats overwhelmingly backed Obama.

Committee member Jeff Berman, a consultant and Obama ally, helped draft the proposal as part of the Democratic Party Change Commission.

"It was designed to allow party leaders to go as they have, but also to keep the voters in control of the process in how we pick our nominee," he said.

DNC officials will make a formal decision later this year. Also under consideration is a proposal delaying the start of primary season in 2012, to avoid the jockeying that led Michigan and Florida to be temporarily stripped of their delegates two years ago.

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