Democrats took their first official steps Saturday to reduce the power of unpledged delegates in presidential primaries, with the Democratic National Committee voting to “revise the role and reduce the perceived influence” of superdelegates before the next election.
That vote, which is likely to reduce the number of superdelegates by at least half, came after 21 months of debate that began at the party’s 2016 convention in Philadelphia. Saturday’s discussion found a party determined to move past the 2016 primaries between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in large part by reducing the power of the party’s establishment to pick a nominee.
“These are changes that I’m confident that people all over this country want to see,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the party’s deputy chairman and one of few Democratic members of Congress who backed Sanders for president. “I’m prepared to tell you that as a member of Congress, I don’t need more power than anybody else.”
Arguments about the conduct of primaries, the details of the DNC’s budget and whether caucuses could be more accessible to busy voters were punted to the summer. Anger at other party institutions, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, still reverberates in the party’s liberal base. But DNC members said the perception that the 2016 race was “rigged” to assist Clinton was being corrected before the next presidential race.
“Ever since the 2016 election, we’ve seen that people from all sides want improvement at the DNC,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), a party vice chair. “It’s an easy punching bag, but I think that’s why the DNC has been trying to reform itself.”
The suggestions passed Saturday would unwind much of what the DNC did in 1982, when superdelegates — party leaders and lower-level officials who were not bound to any voters’ preferences — were first empowered.
In theory, superdelegates had the power to block a candidate perceived as unelectable in a general election from getting the nomination. In reality, in the relatively close primaries of 1984, 2008 and 2016, they gave some momentum to front-runners, then affirmed the victories of candidates who won the most delegates in state-by-state contests. By 2016, the number of superdelegates had reached close to 700, or 30 percent of all delegates.
That year’s presidential contest became bitter, first when most members of Congress endorsed Clinton, and then when hacks of emails from the DNC, the DCCC and Clinton’s campaign found operatives becoming disgruntled with Sanders and his campaign. A Unity Reform Commission, with a slight majority of Clinton appointees, grew out of that, met through 2017, and recommended cutting back superdelegates as well as opening up party primaries.
“There are people who think the DNC formally took a position in favor of one of the candidates, and that’s not true. What I think we’re trying to do, rather than just use words to correct people’s impressions, is to take action,” said James Roosevelt III, a chairman of the Rules and Bylaws Committee that accepted most of the URC’s recommendations.
The URC became a focal point for liberal pressure on the DNC — especially from Sanders. The senator and Our Revolution, the group he founded after the primary, rallied supporters in favor of ending superdelegates, opening primaries to independents and making the party’s budget more transparent.
“We already had two strikes against the activists,” explained Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), one of 31 Democrats in Congress urging the party to adopt new rules. “After the 2016 election, the first thing they did was say: We’re going to continue to accept corporate money. Strike two was Keith Ellison not winning the DNC chair race, and many people feeling like the establishment was the reason. Rejecting the unity commission would be strike three.”
The long process of bringing the changes to the full DNC calmed some of the tensions that made them necessary. While some protesters showed up for the earliest URC meetings — four of them, held across three time zones — they began to lose interest. At the Rules and Bylaws Committee’s final meeting last week, one protester grew so exhausted that he left his sign behind — an 8½-by-11 sheet of white paper reading “THIS MEETING IS SO BORING.”
Saturday’s vote didn’t resolve all of the DNC’s issues, however. Larry Cohen, the Sanders-appointed co-chair of the URC, on Saturday encouraged further retooling to the primary process that would allow independents to participate — changes viewed skeptically by some state parties.
“This party stands for change,” Cohen said. “This party welcomes unaffiliated voters to join us.”
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager, said the slow debate over superdelegates could lead to their being reduced even further. Leaders on both sides of the 2016 primary, he said, had come to argue for eliminating superdelegates, or perhaps binding them to primary results.
“It would be really incredible if the DNC were to repudiate Tom Perez, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders,” Weaver said, naming four leaders who’d endorsed party revisions.