How Democrats Should Solve Their Superdelegate Problem

In December, the members of the Democrats’ “Unity Reform Commission” will make their recommendations to the Democratic Party for changes in the way it handles presidential elections (among other things). Then it will be up to the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee to decide whether to fully or partially adopt any of these recommendations. This is a big deal for Democrats, as it is the culmination of the effort to bridge the still-raw divide between the Bernie Sanders wing of the party and the Hillary Clinton establishment wing. Nobody at this point knows exactly what the unity group is going to propose, but there’s one festering issue which will likely take center stage: superdelegate reform. The answer to this problem, though, seems pretty obvious to an outside observer. There’s one way to solve it which would seem to appeal to all concerned.

Before I get to my answer, though, a quick review seems appropriate. Superdelegates are a purely Democratic idea, as the Republican Party seems to do just fine nominating their presidential candidates without such a system. The idea of superdelegates was anti-democratic from the beginning, although instituted with the best of intentions. When the modern primary system was created in the 1970s to gave the voters the power of selecting the nominee, the party organization sought to create a sort of semi-veto over the popular voters’ will, in order to avoid extreme or unelectable nominees. The party currently has over 4,700 delegates to their national convention, including over 700 “superdelegates” (roughly 15 percent of the total). These superdelegates are party bigwigs ― elected officials, party leaders, former politicians, and other Democratic Party insiders.

The non-super delegates come from all the individual states and territories and are proportionally represented, in two ways. The first is overall ― states with higher populations (and therefore more House districts) get more delegates. The second is in how they vote, at least from most states. After the state holds either a primary or a caucus during presidential primary season, a certain number of delegates is allotted to each candidate, based on their share of the vote. Rules vary from state to state, with some being more strictly proportionate than others (some award bonus delegates to the winner of the primary, and some have Byzantine rules set up for who gets to be a delegate and how they’ll vote, and some just unanimously award all delegates to the winner). But the basic rule of thumb is that the winner gets more delegates than the loser(s), and how that divide happens usually depends on how big the margin of victory was in one way or another.

Superdelegates, however, are “unpledged.” They get to vote with only their own conscience guiding them, in other words, instead of some rule that forces them to vote for one candidate or another based upon the results of the primary vote. This is where the undemocratic part becomes obvious. If you’re a pledged delegate from a state, then your vote is determined by tens of thousands of primary voters. If you are a superdelegate who votes for a different candidate for personal reasons, then you wield the same amount of power as tens of thousands of Democratic voters, all on your own. It’s not “one man, one vote,” rather it is “one superdelegate trumps tens of thousands of votes,” in other words.

All the delegates ― super or not ― meet during the summer of an election year at the national convention. This is where the delegate votes are actually cast and counted. The national convention is a big party, both literally and figuratively. It is a meeting of representatives of the Democratic voting base from every corner of the country for the serious business of nominating a presidential and vice-presidential candidate. It is also a rollicking good time where Democrats join in boisterous merrymaking for three or four solid days and nights. I speak from experience, having attended the last two such conventions, I should mention (you don’t get much sleep, I’ll leave it at that).

This may sound trivial, but it’s a big deal ― and I feel it is where the answer lies to the problem of superdelegates. All the other delegates to the national convention have worked very hard to get there ― these are the local county and state party leaders as well as the behind-the-scenes Democratic Party frontline troops who have put in hundreds of hours manning phone lines and handing out lawn signs and knocking on doors to try to enthuse the grassroots voters. They work very hard and if they’re lucky, they get chosen to be a delegate as a reward for all their efforts.

Superdelegates, however, get a free pass. They are automatically assured a seat at the convention no matter how much effort they put in to the campaign or the party at large. They are seen as the party elders who have already earned the right to be there by their entire career, to be more charitable, but they know from the very start that they’re going to get to go to the party at the end of the process.

Now, nobody’s really saying this out loud in the discussion over the superdelegate problem, but this is a huge personal benefit that the superdelegates currently enjoy. So my answer to the superdelegate debate is to continue this perquisite, but also to remove the power of their independent vote. All superdelegates should be considered part of their home state’s delegation, in the future. Every party bigwig comes from somewhere, so they should just be added in to that state’s total voting bloc at the convention. But ― this is the crucial point ― they would no longer be able to freely vote for whomever they personally chose. Their votes would instead be strictly allocated in exactly the same way as all the other delegates’ votes from that state. Perhaps they could have the option of deciding which candidate they’d like to vote for before all the other delegates are allotted ― that would be a limited form of the freedom to vote they currently enjoy. But only up to a point ― if they wanted to vote for Candidate Smith when Candidate Jones won all the delegates from their state, then they would not be allowed to do so, period. They could vote for Jones, or abstain, or just decide not go to the convention ― and those would be their only choices. Just like all the other delegates.

Obviously, this would take some reshuffling of each state’s overall total delegate allocations. There may be more superdelegates from certain states than others, which would have to be balanced by reapportioning the other delegates to reach the same overall proportional balance (by population) between the states as before, in other words. But that’s a purely mathematical problem which should be able to be worked out without too much trouble.

This would seem to solve the problem without being overly harsh about it. Superdelegates would still automatically be invited to the convention and they’d still be able to cast their vote for the nominee of their party, but who they voted for would no longer be solely up to them. They may retain a limited form of this, where they’d be able to request being a “Smith delegate” or a “Jones delegate,” but only up to the point that such delegates exist from their home states. By doing so, the Democratic Party would again become a truly democratic party, where no one person’s vote is weightier than any other’s.

To me (at least) this seems an elegant solution to the entire problem. Superdelegates could publicly come out for one candidate or another and pledge their support. They could still campaign for their chosen candidate to their hearts’ content, they could pledge their support as early as they pleased, and they would know that they’re going to the convention automatically. But their pledged support would only go as far as the voters in their home states allowed. They ― just like all the other delegates ― would be bound by the rules each state has set up for the allocation of convention delegates. They could not overturn these rules and would have to abide by them, even if it meant ultimately casting a vote for the candidate they didn’t support in the primaries. The voters would return to having the ultimate say over their vote ― which is the real core of the problem today.

So sure, let them come to the party. A lifetime’s service as a Democratic politician or party leader should have some benefit, after all. Who is going to turn away someone like Barack Obama if he says he wants to participate in the convention? But in the end the voters from the state of Illinois (once he moves back there) would control Obama’s vote, just as they control every other Illinois delegate’s vote. Perhaps such delegates would have to be renamed, from superdelegate to something like “automatic delegate,” since they wouldn’t have their superpowers any more.

This could achieve true party unity. The Bernie Sanders supporters chafed at how undemocratic the superdelegate system is, but such a change would remove this problem and restore the party to honestly being a (small “d”) democratic party once again. The Democratic Party establishment shouldn’t be too put out by such a change, either, since the bigwigs would retain all of their convention perks except for one. They’d even retain the ability to be an outsized influence on the presidential nominating process, if enough of them endorsed a candidate very early in the process. But this time around the voters would know that their personal voting preferences were that and that alone ― if the voters spoke differently, they’d have to change their convention vote whether the former superdelegates liked it or not. The people, in other words, would gain veto power over the superdelegates rather than the other way around.

Like everyone else, I have no idea what the Unity group is going to propose to the DNC next month. And I have no idea what the party will accept in the way of superdelegate reform. The only rumors I’ve heard are that Tom Perez is considering merely lowering the overall number of superdelegates. This might be seen as a step in the right direction by some, but it doesn’t address the basic problem of the unfairness of their votes counting for more than the rank-and-file Democratic base. My solution does fully address this problem, while still retaining the privileged status of the superdelegates’ automatic invitation to the convention. This would seem to be a solution both Clinton and Sanders supporters could at least live with. Superdelegates were always intended to be a sort of establishment veto power to be wielded over the Democratic voting base. It is an elitist entitlement created to thwart the will of the actual voters, to put it bluntly. That part needs to completely end. But at the same time, there’s no reason Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for that matter) shouldn’t get an automatic invitation to the big party in 2020. Keep the non-voting benefits and just meld the superdelegates into each state’s pledged delegation. Problem solved!

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