CHICAGO ― In a long-awaited bid to reinvigorate the Democratic Party and heal the divides of the 2016 presidential primary, the Democratic National Committee voted Saturday to disempower superdelegates as part of a package of historic party reforms.
The vote, at the DNC’s summer meeting, marked the culmination of more than two years of debate, hand-wringing and negotiation over the future of the party.
The biggest change approved by the more than 400 voting members of the DNC addressed the polarizing issue of so-called superdelegates ― the delegates at the presidential nominating convention free to support a candidate of their choosing, regardless of how primary or caucus voters cast ballots in their state.
The plan, supported by DNC Chairman Tom Perez and allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), strips superdelegates of the ability to vote on the first ballot at a presidential nominating convention ― unless a candidate already has such a large delegate advantage from caucus and primary wins that he or she would win the nomination without superdelegate support.
“We made these changes because it’s never too late to do the right thing,” said California DNC member Michael Kapp, who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary. “By restoring trust to our presidential primary process, we are reinforcing the fact that Democrats are the party of the people.”
“We should do everything we can to build trust and confidence in the party that will help with unity.”
Shortly before the final vote, Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman and leading opponent of the reforms, recognized that his side was certain to lose. Seeking to save people’s time, Fowler motioned to suspend the rules and have the DNC membership approve the reform package by an informal vote of acclamation.
In the end, the DNC overwhelmingly passed the reform package by a voice vote of acclamation.
Curbing the influence of superdelegates, which include members of Congress and all DNC members, was a key goal of Sanders supporters following the 2016 presidential primary. They argue that Democratic rival Clinton’s early support from superdelegates created an air of inevitability that unfairly tilted the race in her favor, whether or not it affected the contest’s final outcome.
But by the time of Saturday’s vote, Perez and other key figures in the party establishment more associated with Clinton had long since concluded that superdelegate reform was a price worth paying for intra-party peace. A number of Democratic officials emphasized that the change sought to address the “perception” of unfairness in the presidential nominating process as much as the reality.
If superdelegates have never actually changed the outcome of a presidential primary, then DNC members, who are themselves superdelegates, are effectively not giving up any significant power, said New York DNC member Jay Jacobs.
“It’s a way to demonstrate the party understands the views of those people ― while I may not agree with them ― who feel that we were not as transparent as we should have been,” Jacobs said. “We should do everything we can to build trust and confidence in the party that will help with unity and get to my ultimate outcome: electing a Democrat as president in 2020.”
The reform fight forged an unlikely alliance between Perez, mainstream Democrats like Jacobs and left-wing Berniecrats, who opposed Perez’s 2017 chairmanship bid and have since been critical of his tenure. In order to defeat the hardline obstruction of a rump of old-guard DNC members, these progressives swallowed their skepticism of Perez and misgivings about the dilution of some of their preferred reforms.
Our Revolution, the progressive group that emerged out of Sanders campaign, mobilized dozens of activists to attend the final vote in support of Perez’s agenda and distributed blue stickers with the words, “Yes! For Unity.”
“It is really kind of bizarre to be on the same side as Perez on these issues and I’m glad we are,” said Selina Vickers, a West Virginia social worker and progressive activist who participated in a Friday morning press conference in support of the reforms.
Vickers, a Sanders backer who attended every DNC meeting since the 2016 election, did not eat food for a week leading up to the final reform vote.
“It’s a physical manifestation of my hunger for democracy,” she said.
The reform package also included a host of lower-profile changes, some of which were designed to please Clinton backers. Specifically, the DNC voted to overhaul the state party-run presidential caucuses, day-long affairs that many Democrats criticized for locking out all but the most dedicated partisans. The new system would increase caucus accessibility by permitting same-day party registration and absentee voting, a change that proponents note would accommodate people with disabilities.
The DNC does not enjoy the same power to shape presidential primaries, which are run by state governments. The reform package nonetheless attempts to force the states to require same-day party registration in primaries.
In addition, in a separate vote to amend the DNC’s charter, DNC members approved the creation of a new Ombudsman Committee, stronger safeguards against DNC members’ conflicts of interest, and greater oversight of the party body’s finances.
With the help of prominent black officials, reformers successfully squelched a last-minute push by reform opponents to claim the changes would disenfranchise people of color.
As a result of decades of advancement in Congress and party officialdom, over 200 of the 700-plus superdelegates are black. Black DNC veterans, echoing the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and some white allies, argued that the reform would deprive people of color of a key source of influence.
The claims led to an ugly turn on Friday when at least one reform opponent argued in a members-only meeting that the disempowerment of superdelegates was tantamount to a return to slavery, according to several DNC members in the room.
Black reform proponents, who skewed younger, countered that the party grassroots was more diverse than its elected officials and party officers. Weakening superdelegates and increasing the importance of ordinary convention delegates would actually make the party more diverse, these stakeholders insisted.
By Saturday, the task of arguing against superdelegate reform for racial representation reasons fell to Fowler, a white South Carolinian who has served on the body since the early 1970s.
After decades of racial progress, he declared, “Now we’re going to turn around and take democracy away from these folks.”
However, prior to Fowler’s remarks, Lee Saunders, the African-American president of the mammoth labor union AFSCME, delivered a thunderous speech in favor of reform that received a much warmer response from the DNC membership.
If the superdelegate reform disenfranchised black people, Saunders vowed, “I gotta tell ya, speakin’ to ya right now ― I wouldn’t be on board with these proposals because of who I am and where I came from.
“But I support these proposals,” he concluded, drawing raucous applause.
The path to Democratic Party reform began on the eve of the Democratic national convention in late July 2016. Sanders delegates packed the DNC’s pre-convention Rules and Bylaws Committee demanding an end to superdelegates. In a compromise agreement struck to avert greater unrest on the convention floor, the committee agreed to convene a Unity and Reform Commission to take up the changes after the election.
The commission, composed of slightly more Clinton campaign appointees than Sanders campaign appointees, met to discuss reform ideas for several multi-day meetings between May 2017 and December 2017. In December, the commission recommended a package of reforms that would have effectively abolished 60 percent of superdelegates.
The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee subsequently took up the commission’s proposal for consideration. In order to avoid a charter change that would require a two-thirds vote, the committee modified the superdelegate reform proposal to one in which all superdelegates would abstain from voting on the first convention ballot, save for cases where a candidate has already clinched the nomination without superdelegates.
In late June, the Rules and Bylaws Committee overwhelmingly approved the reform package, sending it to the largest DNC membership to vote on it on Saturday.
Saunders alluded to the sheer length of the deliberations in his remarks.
“We have debated this ad nauseum,” he said. “Our job is to get Democrats elected so let’s start that right now.”