The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Bernie Sanders change how the Democratic Party chooses presidential nominees? Here’s what you need to know.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders protest outside City Hall in Philadelphia on Sunda, the day before the start of the Democratic Nattional Convention. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The Democratic National Convention’s rules committee convened Saturday to consider the report that it will present on the convention’s opening day in Philadelphia. The meeting was dominated by the controversial issues of the lengthy Democratic primary campaign: the role of superdelegates, the role of caucuses and, in general, how open the Democratic nomination process should be.

Here is what happened at the committee meeting:

After a series of uncontentious votes and a short recess, the committee began to consider amendments to the charter of the party and the rules of the nomination process. This began with amendments affecting the influence of superdelegates — including an amendment to abolish them and another to reduce their number. All of these amendments failed by a ratio of about 3 to 2.

At that point, committee members from both the Clinton and Sanders teams called for a recess. The ensuing three-hour break produced a unity amendment that created a post-convention commission to examine not only the superdelegate process but the other perceived shortcomings of the process. This “Unity Reform Commission” would be the successor to the Democratic Change Commission of eight years ago.

If the full convention approves the rules committee’s report on Monday, here is what will happen:

  1. No more than 60 days after the election of the next chair of the Democratic National Committee early next year, the chair will establish the Unity Reform Commission (URC).
  2. Its membership will include Clinton surrogate Jennifer O’Malley Dillon as commission chairwoman and Sanders proxy Larry Cohen as vice chair. Clinton will fill nine additional slots, and Sanders will fill seven. The next DNC chair will select three members.
  3. The URC will meet during 2017 with the goal of producing a set of rules recommendations for the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee by Jan. 1, 2018.
  4. The normal procedure is for the Rules and Bylaws Committee to consider those recommendations before sending them — potentially in an amended form — to the full Democratic National Committee for a final vote. That procedure remains intact. However, the URC retains the ability to place its recommendations before the full DNC if the Rules and Bylaws Committee “fails to substantially adopt” any of them.

One issue before the URC will be the caucus process. This was a Clinton campaign complaint after 2008 and is again in 2016. The question confronting the URC will be whether it comes to a different conclusion than the Democratic Change Commission in 2009. That commission called for the development of a set of “best practices” for caucuses but, ultimately, left the primary vs. caucus matter up to the states (to best tailor a process at the state level).

The unity amendment is rather vague on the question of open vs. closed primaries. It only specifies that the commission develop recommendations that “encourage” increased involvement in the primaries. The Sanders proxies on the commission will probably push for something promoting more open primaries, but the DNC (and the RNC for that matter) have historically remained mostly hands-off on this matter, deferring to the states.

Interestingly, the two parties are being pulled in opposite directions on the matter. Sanders supporters want more open primaries, while the GOP’s liberty faction — most associated with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, although it extends beyond his supporters — is aiming for a more closed process.

The part of the unity amendment with more teeth concerned superdelegates. It recommended that elected officials — Democratic members of Congress, governors and distinguished party leaders — remain as unpledged delegates. However, it recommended that the remaining superdelegates (approximately two-thirds of them) be pledged delegates required to vote based on the results of primaries and caucuses.

This moves in the direction of what the Sanders campaign wants, which is to curb the influence of the unpledged delegates. But it does not address the core problem Sanders and his supporters had with superdelegates: that a significant number of superdelegates endorsed Clinton in 2015 before any primary and caucus votes had been cast.

Note that these are recommendations only. The eventual rule will depend not only on the URC but on the full DNC as well. If the URC is near-unanimous in its recommendations, that may make any inaction on the part of the DNC more difficult. But a divided URC would produce recommendations with less force.

Note, too, that the URC has a relatively wide mandate and can consider other aspects of the nomination process. So other changes could follow. And the URC undoubtedly will be watching its counterpart: the newly created study panel that came out of the Republican National Convention rules committee in Cleveland.

In fact, after 2008, the two party commissions — the Democratic Change Commission and the Republicans’ Temporary Delegate Selection Committee — unofficially coordinated their actions somewhat, finding common ground on problems such as the front-loading of primaries and caucuses and the January start to primary season.

That may not happen again in 2017, but, regardless, the year will see continued debates about presidential nomination rules, and possibly important rules changes.

Josh Putnam is a lecturer in the department of political science at the University of Georgia and the author of the Frontloading HQ blog.