Democracy Dies in Darkness

Opinions

The Democratic Party’s nomination process isn’t democratic enough

By Ronald A. Klain

September 25, 2017 at 11:11 AM

A sign outside a presidential primary voting place in Milwaukee on April 5, 2016. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Unless you are a political junkie, you may not know that something called the Unity Reform Commission has been meeting — yes, already — to write the rules for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating process. It should surprise no one that the commission's deliberations have been enmeshed in lingering bitterness over the party's 2016 nomination contest — and shaped by premature views of what rules would benefit potential candidates for 2020. So let me offer an alternative approach: Let's focus reforms on making the Democratic Party nomination process more democratic.

Even if you believe (as I do) that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Democratic nomination fair and square — i.e., she won it because more than 3.7 million more people voted for her than for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and not because the process was "rigged" by "DNC favoritism" — you have to acknowledge that the complexity of the process fuels criticism that it was constructed by insiders, to advantage insiders. Moreover, the current nominating process — built over decades in successive waves of reform, counter-reform and re-reform — is so jerry-rigged as to be incomprehensible to all but the most savvy observers. The Democratic nominating process is a 1977 AMC Gremlin. It should be a 2017 Tesla.

The Unity Reform Commission's charter calls for a process that is "more accessible, transparent and inclusive," but it is also filled with caveats. Halfhearted reforms would be a mistake. Instead, it's time for an overhaul around a core principle: The nominee should be democratically chosen by the broadest possible cross section of voters who can help elect the Democratic candidate for president.

That means, first, abolishing caucuses and using only primaries to pick convention delegates. (One exception can be made for the iconic Iowa caucuses.) The selection of a president should not be limited to those voters able to attend a caucus that may be inconvenient and lengthy, and that does not permit absentee or early voting. Caucuses lack the transparency of primaries, intimidate inexperienced voters and discriminate against voters of limited means, who should not have more barriers put in the way of their participation.

They also are an affront to the idea of one person, one vote. On March 5, 2016, just 39,000 caucus-goers in Kansas got to allocate 33 convention delegates; three days later, it took 221,000 voters in Mississippi to pick 36 delegates. Every 1,200 Kansas caucus-goers were represented by one delegate; it took 6,800 Mississippians to have the same sway. Why? Why did 230,000 caucus-goers in Washington state get to elect 101 delegates — while 846,000 Maryland primary voters picked 95?

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Global Opinions editor Karen Attiah deconstructs the Democratic Party’s “Better Deal” platform, which she says will get it knocked out of future elections by ignoring minorities and marginalized groups. (Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Karen Attiah/The Washington Post)

Second, Democratic presidential primaries should not be limited to Democrats only. Independent voters not affiliated with any party should be allowed to vote; only members of other political parties should be barred (allowing Republicans to vote in the Democratic primaries could give rise to great mischief). About half of the primaries and caucuses held by Democrats in 2016 were "closed," meaning only registered Democrats could participate. What kind of message is sent to independents about Democrats' desire for their support in the fall by a nomination process displaying a "not welcome" sign in the spring?

There is always speculation as to the ideological impact of including independents in the process. In 2016, data showed that independents who were able to vote in Democratic primaries were more often Sanders voters; in other years, independents have been more centrist than rank-and-file Democrats. This far in advance of 2020, there's simply no way to know what sort of ideology these non-Democrats will reflect. What is clear is this: A party that needs to open its doors wider should start by inviting the largest possible swath of voters to help pick its standard-bearer.

Finally, it is time for the "superdelegates" to lose their convention votes. Actual voters should pick Democrats' next nominee, not current elected officials, retired officials or DNC members. These party leaders should come to the convention as nonvoting delegates; their participation and leadership in the party-building that goes on at a convention are important. But when the presidential roll is called, only delegates picked by primary voters should vote.

The desire of some party leaders to hang on to their superdelegate votes is self-defeating. Superdelegates have never been decisive in the process; they have always ratified the choice of the primary voters. Their status as voting delegates creates intrigue and opacity without changing the result. Ironically, the superdelegates' end-of-the-game declarations of support for the de facto nominee do not convey added legitimacy to that candidate — they do the opposite, conveying a sense that the nominee was selected in some backroom, closed-door process.

The Democratic Party has done more to promote equality, participation and inclusion than any political party in the history of the world. It's time to ensure that its most important task — picking the party's nominee for president — is as democratic as possible.

Read more here:

Matthew Dallek: In defense of the unfair, messy presidential nomination process

Eugene Robinson: The 2016 election was not a fluke

Rachel Manteuffel: I'm wielding my electoral power of 40 Texas Republicans to vote for a man I hate

Charles Lane: If the GOP had superdelegates, we might not be in this Trump mess


Ronald A. Klain, a Post contributing columnist, served as a senior White House aide to both Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

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