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Opinion Here’s one way the Clinton-Sanders brawl could end well

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Over the weekend, Bernie Sanders emphatically declared that there’s still plenty of time to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning a majority of delegates, and hinted that if so, he might move to extract concessions from her at a contested convention. That actually could happen, since Sanders has the money to keep on going until the last votes are cast.

If so, here’s one way this could end: Sanders could demand concessions in the form of reforms to the Democratic nominating process. That’s something voting reformers (and a lot of Sanders supporters) would be very grateful to see happen — and it would make sense, given that one of the big stories of the Sanders challenge is that it has exposed a number of flaws with that process.

The Sanders campaign has been hinting that he will move to peel away un-pledged delegates — so-called super delegates, who are not bound to a candidate by the voting in primaries and caucuses — from Clinton, even if he’s trailing in the battle for pledged delegates (who are bound). Mark Murray has a good post spelling out why this is unlikely to happen: Going back to the advent of super-delegates in 1984, they have never sided with the candidate who trailed in pledged delegates, and Clinton is all but certain to be leading in the pledged delegate count when it’s all over, even if she doesn’t have an outright majority of all the delegates (pledged and un-pledged together) at that point.

But even so, if Sanders can keep Clinton short of a majority of delegates going into the convention, he could still try to use whatever leverage he has — after all, he’ll have the support of voters across the country that Clinton wants in her corner — to prod the Democratic Party to make changes to the way it selects its nominees. Some possibilities:

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It’s possible that the party could discuss doing away with super-delegates, or at least scaling down the number of them. There are currently over 700 super-dels in a process that requires 2,383 overall delegates to win. It’s more likely that the party would discuss limiting them rather than eliminating them, given that the Donald Trump challenge has got elites talking anew about the perils to a party of not having any at all.

It’s also possible that the party could discuss doing away with closed primaries. Clinton is heading into a stretch of closed primaries — which only permit voting by registered Democrats — and she’s very likely to win big in New York in part because of overly restrictive voting rules that make it harder for unaffiliated voters to register as Democrats.

“Independents are the fastest growing political affiliation, but they are often shut out of the nominating process,” Ari Berman, the author of “Give Us The Ballot,” a history of the struggle over voting in America, tells me. “Many younger voters have less of a party affiliation. We should look at how the process is shutting out these voters.” Such a reform would help the Democratic Party stand for engaging these voter groups.

Another possibility: Limits on the number of primaries that can be held on one day. Clinton won big on days (such as March 1st and March 15th) that held many contests at once; that automatically favors the candidate with more national name recognition and establishment support, because an insurgent struggles to catch up in many states at once.

“Having a bunch of states go all on one day creates an unnatural advantage for wealthy and high-name-ID candidates, and disadvantages insurgents,” Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg says. “The contests should be more spread out. It should be the principle of the Democratic Party that we’re not advantaging privilege.”

Also: A more rational, transparent process for setting debate schedules. The Sanders campaign charged early on that the Democratic National Committee was rigging the Dem debate schedule to minimize exposure to Clinton’s challengers. That was to some degree unfair, but the DNC did to some degree bow to the demands of the Clinton camp for fewer debates. While the Clinton camp and DNC did ultimately agree to more debates, the end result was still far fewer eyeballs on Dem debates and a fair amount of uncertainty about the legitimacy of the process.

Sanders might push for some kind of reform (perhaps a commission to recommend changes to how the debate schedule is set) that would make this process more rational, transparent, and more obviously geared towards the good of the party overall.

And, finally: An end to caucuses. Here a nuance intrudes: Sanders, too, arguably benefited from a less-than-democratic element to the process, since he overwhelmingly won caucus states, which require a greater commitment from voters. “One reform should be getting rid of caucuses,” Berman says, adding that their sheer inconvenience ends up excluding lower-income voters, particularly those of color.

It’s obviously anybody’s guess whether any of this will actually happen. Clinton could win a majority of delegates outright before the convention, perhaps making all this moot. But it’s something to start thinking about. A discussion over how to improve the Democratic Primary process might benefit the party and more firmly align it with a reformist impulse that might be in sync with the widespread sense that the system is rigged, broken, and corrupt.

“All of these things have exposed the fact that the Democratic process — the big-D democratic process — isn’t that democratic,” Berman says. “All this could be tied to a broader pro-democracy message that talks about the distortions of big money, ending gerrymandering, and making voting easier.”

If the Sanders challenge has exposed flaws in the Democratic nominating process — and if Clinton does finish short of a majority of delegates, forcing a convention showdown of sorts — then reforming that process could be one of the Sanders challenge’s legacies.


UPDATE: Rep. Raul Grijalva, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a top supporter and super-delegate of Bernie Sanders, tells me in an interview that the Sanders camp may push for such changes at the convention, if Clinton leads in pledged delegates but falls short of amassing a majority.

Sanders may push for reforms that “maximize participation and create an even playing field down the road,” Grijalva says, adding that one thing they may focus on is the number of super delegates, which has “to be looked at.”

The success of Bernie’s message, Grijalva says, could prompt a push from his supporters for “structural political reforms to our party,” in hopes of making it a “strong progressive party.”

UPDATE II: In the initial version of this post, I referred repeatedly to Sanders’ desire to deny Clinton a “majority of pledged delegates.” But this terminology is not really accurate. In reality, Sanders has to prevent Clinton from winning a majority of delegates overall before the convention — which she can do either only by winning pledged delegates, or by winning a majority through a combination of pledged and super-delegates — in order to realistically force any kind of showdown. I’ve adjusted the language of the post accordingly.