Quick civics lesson: Delegates are the people who attend the national convention and cast the formal votes for the nominee. Most of them are required to vote according to the results of their states' primaries or caucuses, regardless of their personal opinions. They're just there to represent the previously expressed will of the people. But some delegates, known as superdelegates, can cast ballots for whomever they want; they aren't bound by the popular votes in their states. They're usually party leaders, and they usually favor establishment candidates, in this case Clinton.
The delegate accumulation process can seem like an obscure part of our quirky form of democracy, but it could be important this year. Sanders could, in theory, earn a majority of the 1,670 delegates up for grabs in popular voting all over the country but still lose the nomination if most of the 712 superdelegates side with Clinton at the convention.
CNN's Jake Tapper seemed to have this scenario in mind when he interviewed Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on Thursday:
TAPPER: Hillary Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire by 22 percentage points, the biggest victory in a contested Democratic primary there since John F. Kennedy, but it looks as though Clinton and Sanders are leaving the Granite State with the same number of delegates in their pockets because Clinton has the support of New Hampshire's superdelegates, these party insiders. What do you tell voters who are new to the process who say this makes them feel like it's all rigged?
WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, let me just make sure that I can clarify exactly what was available during the primaries in Iowa and in New Hampshire. The unpledged delegates are a separate category. The only thing available on the ballot in a primary and a caucus is the pledged delegates, those that are tied to the candidate that they are pledged to support. And they receive a proportional number of delegates going into the — going into our convention.
Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don't have to be in a position where they are running against grass-roots activists. We are, as a Democratic Party, really highlight and emphasize inclusiveness and diversity at our convention, and so we want to give every opportunity to grass-roots activists and diverse committed Democrats to be able to participate, attend and be a delegate at the convention. And so we separate out those unpledged delegates to make sure that there isn't competition between them.
TAPPER: I'm not sure that that would — that answer would satisfy an anxious young voter, but let's move on.
Tapper was clearly in a time crunch (the entire live interview lasted only five minutes) and had other subjects to cover. Wasserman Schultz was saved by the bell.
Her answer had almost nothing to do with the question, which was about the very reasonable concern that millions of voters could have their primary and caucus ballots vetoed by a few hundred party insiders. Instead, Wasserman Schultz launched into a tangent about how the party makes sure that regular folks have a chance to fulfill the ceremonial roles of convention delegates.
Unfair as it might seem, there is a coherent argument for the superdelegate system. For one thing, it has worked this way for a long time; it isn't something the party invented to benefit Clinton. Sanders has known all along that winning the nomination is a whole lot easier with the backing of superdelegates, and he could have started lobbying for their support long ago, as Clinton did.
For another thing, superdelegates could serve as a kind of safety valve in the event that a leading candidate is suddenly beset by scandal before the convention. They could potentially thwart the nomination of a candidate who won primaries and caucuses before the scandal broke and give the party a more viable alternative ahead of the general election.
But if Wasserman Schultz and the DNC believe in the superdelegate system, they should have to defend it publicly. That means the media need to press party officials on this subject.
Tapper ran out of time Thursday, but he and others should revisit the issue soon and not let Wasserman Schultz off so easily.