In a message aimed at national party leaders, Maine Democrats voted to require that, beginning in 2020, the state’s total delegate votes at the national convention must be awarded proportionately to the results of the state’s presidential caucus or primary. That could bind some superdelegates – who currently hold five of Maine’s 30 seats to the Democratic National Convention – to supporting certain candidates in order to maintain the outcome of the statewide vote.
The proposal, which was sponsored by state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, would urge but not require this year’s superdelegates to honor the outcome of the Democratic caucuses in March, when Sanders won 63 percent of the votes amid record turnout in Maine. Finally, it calls on the national party to eliminate the superdelegate system altogether.
“The reason that I have put this in is we have heard from people all across the state about how frustrated they are that you can actually have a popular vote where 63 percent of the delegates go to one candidate, and yet superdelegates are not voting in proportion to that,” Russell told the fired-up crowd. “I want to fix it.”
The Fix spoke with Russell last month about the now-successful effort. Here's our interview with her back then.
Bernie Sanders has won seven of the past eight state nominating contests, some of them handily. Yet here's why we can say Hillary Clinton is the most likely Democratic nominee:
Put another way: Clinton has more delegates than Sanders — 251 more, as of last count — because earlier in the contest, she won bigger states that offer more delegates by large margins.
Okay, fair enough, say (most) Sanders supporters.
But here's where they are starting to take issue with the process. Clinton has a big boost in the delegate count thanks to about 500 or so superdelegates who have chosen her over Sanders. Those superdelegates, generally members of Congress and party leaders, get to vote for whomever they want. And the vast majority have chosen Clinton, which means the delegate count suddenly looks like this:
She's now 689 delegates ahead of Sanders. What's more, superdelegates have helped Clinton get even or win the delegate race in some states that she has lost, notes The Fix's Philip Bump. In New Hampshire, for example, Sanders won six regular delegates, but Clinton won six of the state's superdelegates.
So why do 15 percent of Democrats' national delegates get to weigh in without regard to how their state voted? That's the question Sanders supporters are asking. The Clinton camp and Democratic leaders have an easy answer: Those are the rules — and have been for decades.
Okay, fair enough, says at least one Sanders supporter, who is trying to change those rules. Maine state Rep. Diane Russell (D) is introducing a resolution at her party's state convention in May to strongly urge that the votes of Maine's superdelegates reflect the state's popular vote in 2016, and in 2020 require them to vote as their state did. (She hopes the rest of the states would follow her lead). This time around, that would mean that all of Maine's superdelegates would vote for Sanders, who won the state by nearly 30 points.
In essence, Russell's proposal would strip away superdelegates' power and make them, well, regular.
The Fix caught up with Russell to hear more about her idea and why she thinks it's the more democratic process — and one that could help Sanders's chances at the nomination (more on that later):
THE FIX: Set up for me what your plan is.
RUSSELL: We want to make sure Sanders gets the delegates he's allotted. We're introducing a floor amendment to our state convention to change the rules specifically for 2020 — because we don't want to run the risk of losing delegates we do have. But we will include strong language that will be part of the convention telling the superdelegates that for 2016, the convention would strongly suggest that they cast their ballot in support of the majority candidate.
There is a backlash to the superdelegate process, and some is justified, some is way over the line. I am trying to find a constructive fix, and it will force the conversation in 2020 for sure. And I think this is part of the piece directing our DNC [Democratic National Committee] members to advocate for getting rid of the superdelegate process, or at least reform it.
THE FIX: I'm assuming you'd like to eventually get rid of the superdelegate process because you think it's not democratic?
RUSSELL: It's not democratic. I think Joe Scarborough had it right. I was thinking of [the superdelegate process] as white noise; it was not rising to the level of urgency until I saw the state of Washington's race, and Wyoming and my state. [Editor's note: Those are among the states Sanders has won handily but where the delegate count doesn't always reflect that.] Unpledged delegates are allowed to make their determination, but I do think when you have a system that is a counterbalance to the democratic vote, that is anti-democratic.
THE FIX: You're not the first supporter of an underdog candidate to have a beef with Democrats' superdelegate process, though.
RUSSELL: This is not a new conversation. This has been going on since McGovern. I think the difference is that this time, when you win by that margin and then your delegates don't shift dramatically, you can't catch up, then it's depressing media reporting on it, which is frustrating.
So it's really having an impact on people's desire to participate in the process, and I think this is the one year where folks are really motivated. I think you'll see this be an issue at the national convention. And if nothing happens, if nothing changes, you're going to see a real backlash. You're going to see that at the polls this fall, and that's unfortunate.
THE FIX: What do you mean we'll see this impact the polls this fall?
RUSSELL: When you tell people they should get out to vote, and then they do, and then they can't trust the results of the vote, what's the point of getting out to vote?
If people feel like their candidate lost, but they lost squarely, they can live with that. I think it's when you see the impact so clearly, and you don't feel like your candidate lost, then it's hard to be motivated to support the other candidate. At a time when we should be unifying the party and celebrating our vision, we are, in fact, seeing a real division, and it's a class division.
THE FIX: Elaborate on that class division you say the superdelegate process causes.
RUSSELL: It takes a lot to get to be elected at the congressional level, to be part of party leadership, which is what superdelegates are. And, so, there's definitely a class distinction.We're losing people who were working-class because we are not answering and giving credence to the grass roots. I want those folks to knock on those doors and spread the message of hope. I want those people to feel part of the process and to be able to be the voice of the Democratic Party.
When you have a counterbalance of that voice, it silences it, and that's where the frustration is coming from.
RUSSELL: It doesn't change the fact that the superdelegate system isn't working. And I think the conversation around superdelegates has frustrated people enough, like when you see story after story where Bernie wins and then the story is Bernie wins but he's not going to win. Those types of stories actually suppress the voter turnout, so I think this superdelegate conversation is having an impact on the outcome of the election, irrespective of the numbers. The superdelegate system is flawed, it is anti-democratic, and it needs to be changed.