Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (left) and Bernie Sanders talk over each other during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, S.C., on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

A day after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton 60.4 percent to 38 percent in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, many Clinton opponents charged that she and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were undermining the outcome.

“Rigged! Hillary secretly STOLE New Hampshire,” blared the Horn News. Click-bait site “attn:” decried the “Insane, Unfair Reason Hillary Clinton Actually Tied Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire.” U.S. Uncut somehow found a way to be even more colorful: “The DNC Just Screwed Over Bernie Sanders and Spit in Voters’ Faces.”

In fact, Clinton had not yet tied Sanders. There was nothing at all sudden or secret about the party rules causing the uproar. Many dismayed Sanders supporters were simply learning about rules developed decades ago by Democrats tired of watching their party lose presidential elections.

How can a candidate win a state she lost?

The Democratic Party allocated 4,763 delegate slots for its 2016 national convention. At the convention, these delegates will choose the party’s presidential nominee. Voters select more than 4,000 of those delegates, choosing them in state primaries and caucuses according to which candidates the delegates pledged to support.

But the remaining 15 percent of the delegate seats, or 712 in total, were set aside for Democrats identified by the positions they hold (or used to hold) within the party. Former Democratic presidents receive a vote, so Obama, Clinton, and Carter may attend. Acting Democratic governors and Democrats in Congress receive invites, as do leaders from each state’s Democratic party. Around a dozen former party chairs are invited. Leaders of organizations affiliated with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), such as the National Conference of Democratic Mayors or the Young Democrats of America, get to vote at the convention.

These so-called superdelegates are not required to support a particular candidate. They may ignore voters’ preferences if they wish. Instead, they select a candidate using their own judgment, a choice they may (or may not) signal in advance by issuing an endorsement.

That’s why Clinton might win New Hampshire’s delegates. Sanders earned 15 delegates in the New Hampshire primary, while Clinton took nine. But six of the state’s eight superdelegates had already endorsed Clinton. That left the estimated delegate count tied – with the final tally in the hands of a Democratic state senator and the state’s party chair.

Will superdelegates hand the nomination to Clinton?

Far more superdelegates support Clinton than support Sanders. Her lead among superdelegates widened last week. Clinton could keep losing the popular vote while winning the delegate count.

But that’s unlikely. Superdelegates’ commitments are not binding. In 2008, for instance, many Clinton superdelegates switched to Obama before the national convention. If Sanders starts to pull away in the national vote, superdelegates may change their minds.

What’s more, New Hampshire is unusual. Superdelegates made up a quarter of the state’s convention slots. That was not true last weekend in Nevada, where fewer than one-fifth of the delegates were unpledged. And one key superdelegate there, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, held back his Clinton endorsement until afterward.

Voters will select 90 percent of the delegates in South Carolina’s primary this coming weekend. That might be why the flap about superdelegates temporarily quieted down.

Still, the Democratic Party risks serious divisions for permitting insiders to swing a nomination battle away from the popular-vote choice. What was the motive?

Why would the Democrats limit voter influence?

The decision wasn’t made recently to help Clinton. Nor was it made secretly.

The idea that voters should choose a party’s nominee is a recent one. For most of U.S. history, party leaders decided who should stand for them before the electorate. As late as 1968, Hubert Humphrey could win the Democratic nomination without running in primaries.

But the Chicago convention that nominated Humphrey catalyzed a sweeping reform effort. As party regulars selected him inside the convention hall, activists were protesting outside — where they were beaten and teargassed by cops working under a Democratic mayor. Public embarrassment convinced Democratic leaders to channel some of that activist energy into the party organization through the voting booth.

They created the McGovern-Fraser Commission, charged with opening up the party’s nomination process. Starting in the 1972 election, primary voters and caucus participants would select convention delegates (guided by state quotas for gender, race, and age). It was the sort of system that Sanders fans seem to expect today.

But the party did not perform well during this reform experiment. Sen. George McGovern rose from low poll numbers to become the Democratic candidate in 1972; but in the general election, sitting Republican President Richard Nixon won every state except Massachusetts. After the Watergate scandal, Democrat Jimmy Carter came from nowhere to win both the party nomination and the general election in 1976. But Carter built few bridges with party leaders while seeking the White House. As president, he clashed with his own party’s congressional leadership. A nomination challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy helped weaken Carter. In 1980, he lost overwhelmingly to Republican Ronald Reagan.

Two crushing defeats in three elections were more than the once-dominant Democrats were willing to take. Democratic voters do not get better representation when their candidate loses. And letting voters pick the party’s nominee was not as open or democratic as reformers hoped, for these reasons:

So party leaders scaled back the McGovern-Fraser experiment. The party’s Hunt Commission of 1981 did not get rid of elected delegates. It simply added superdelegates who could pick nominees strategically, because:

  • Their career interests as long-term party members would encourage them to support stronger candidates.
  • As politicians from around the country, they could consider the tastes of voters back home, countering the influence of states that vote early.
  • They might give special weight to the preferences of registered Democrats, protecting the right of party members to choose which candidate should represent them.
  • And once the writing is on the wall, superdelegates can shift to the emerging winner, ending the contest more quickly and inexpensively.

Usually superdelegates make no difference. However, during years when they’ve seemed poised to swing a nomination battle – in 1984 and 2008 – disadvantaged factions have been quick to cry foul. The outcry from Sanders fans is nothing new.

Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and former president of the Kentucky Political Science Association.