Nominating the President 2020 (Seriously): Part 1 -- The Democrats

As the seemingly endless 2016 presidential nominating process at last comes to an end, it's a good time to evaluate what went right, what went wrong, and how each party's nominating process and delegate selection rules for the 2020 campaign might be improved. Let's start with the Democrats.

The Democratic Party - unlike the Republican Party - is a national federation of state parties. Thus all Democratic state party rules are consistent and transparent, conforming to specific national guidelines. The Democratic Party has focused on broadening participation to make its process increasingly democratic for over 50 years.

In 1964 the Democratic National Convention took the first dramatic step in nationalizing the structure of the party by unseating the segregationist all-white "regular" Mississippi Democratic Convention delegation and replacing it with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation - comprising whites and blacks that truly represented all the Democrats of Mississippi.

In order to ensure that full racial integration of all state parties would then be permanent, the party's Hughes Commission in 1966 adopted the "Six Basic Elements of the Democratic Party" which, for the first time told each Democratic Party how they could NOT select national convention delegates.

After the raucous 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the party established a Commission, headed by Senator George McGovern to codify specific rules that would ensure that each state's delegate selection process would ensure that the views of rank and file Democrats were represented.

Since that time the national Democratic Party has periodically revisited the rules, tweaking what didn't work and developing new rules that would broaden participation. The McGovern Commission was followed by the Mikulski, Winograd and Hunt Commissions, all mandated to increase participation and address problems that developed as the rules evolved. It is an ongoing process.

In 2016 issues have arisen that demand further review and accommodation.

Some "fairness" issues have been raised by the Sanders campaign. Others have been raised by the Clinton campaign. Let's look at the major complaints and see how the rules could be improved.

Super Delegates

Ex-officio delegates (now commonly called "Super Delegates") to the Democratic National Convention were created for two very important reasons. The Party wanted to ensure that elected and party officials who would have much of the responsibility for the national campaign would also have a part in the nominating process, i.e. that they would have some "skin in the game." The idea was they would thus be invested in the process and the outcome. For example, in 1972, many ran away from, and not with, the national ticket (a phenomenon we are seeing today among Republicans). Thus in the 1980's the Party developed the idea of ex officio delegates.

The other critical reason for the creation of Super Delegates was to give the party a means to maneuver away from an impending political debacle. With more and more states having primaries and caucuses earlier in the year, there was a concern that there would be a "rush to judgment" that could lead to the early nomination of a candidate who had no chance of winning and would cause the defeat of Democratic down ballot candidates.

It is critical to note that since their creation Super Delegates have never reversed a national mandate. They have never nominated a presidential candidate who did not have a plurality of the popular votes of Democrats who voted in primaries and caucuses.

I was a member of the Commission that created Super Delegates, and in fact drafted the rule providing that all Democratic Governors, Senators, Congressmen and State Chairs and Vice Chairs would serve as automatic unpledged delegates. When it came to the floor of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the rule was amended to include all members of the DNC, thus dramatically increasing the number of Super Delegates.

In 2016 there are approximately 700 Super Delegates to the Philadelphia convention. If the Party returned to the rule's original intent, 300 DNC members would no longer be Super Delegates. The percentage of Super Delegates to the convention would drop from 16% to 10%. The key elected and party officials would remain, and the party would still have the "wiggle room" it might need some day to avoid an electoral debacle. And Sen. Sanders and his supporters would rightfully feel that their concerns had been accommodated by the national Party.

Caucus Systems

Caucuses are a problem. Caucuses can be improved. A political party that espouses the broadest, easiest and fairest electoral procedures to expand participation cannot be comfortable with political procedures that do just the opposite. The caucus delegate selection process in effect suppresses voter participation. A minuscule percentage of the electorate participates. People are often required to devote many hours waiting in lines and debating tangential issues. There are no provisions for absentee ballots and thus the military, the sick, the disabled, those who travel for work, parents who can't leave their children, and those that cannot participate for religious reasons are disenfranchised. While we know that the Clinton campaign thinks this is unfair and unrepresentative, all Democrats who criticize Republican efforts to suppress voters by making it difficult for groups like students and minorities to vote should raise questions about the legitimacy of the caucus process. It's hard to condemn deliberately discriminatory Republican voter ID laws when your own party often has only one percent participation in its own presidential nominating caucuses.

It's difficult to imagine the DNC ever actually banning caucuses given their popularity in some states, but it can make them fairer and easier to participate in. The DNC could adopt rules that states that choose caucuses must implement more comprehensive and rigorous affirmative action plans than primary states. The DNC should require caucus states to provide for absentee voting for the military, the infirm, those working out of state, students, and parents who cannot leave their children on caucus nights.

Sen. Sanders has complained that the full participant vote in caucus states is not compiled and thus caucus results are often minimized by the press. This can be simply remedied. The DNC should require that all caucus states must certify and tabulate all those who participate in the process, and release the data to the public.

Closed primaries

There is a very good reason that the Democratic Party has tried to ensure that Democratic primaries and caucuses are open to Democrats only. Ford stockholders don't pick the General Motors board. Wide open primaries are subject to 'strategic voting" and mischievous manipulation, especially when the nominating process of one party is not contested (as it frequently the case when a party is renominating a President for a second term).

Mischievous intent is a serious problem that should not be dismissed casually. An example of this occurred in Michigan in 1972 when Richard Nixon was unopposed for the Republican Party nomination, and hundreds of thousands of Republicans crossed over to vote in the Democratic primary. In the contested Democratic primary the clear majority of registered Democrats voted for Hubert Humphrey. But Republicans who had no need to vote for Nixon, because he was certain to get the nomination, mischievously voted for George McGovern, whom they thought to be the weakest Democratic candidate.

Sen. Sanders has complained bitterly that closed primaries discriminate against him, and that millions of potential Sanders voters could not vote for him because they were registered Republicans or unaffiliated voters. But with all due respect, there is no reason that primaries should be open to the participation of the political opposition, whose commitments and motives are highly questionable.

There is, however, a reasonable compromise used in the state of New Hampshire and other states that might address Sanders' concern for broader participation while not undermining the integrity of our political parties. Under New Hampshire law, each party's primary is open only to the party's registered voters. But unaffiliated independents can choose to vote in either of the major party primaries. This system protects parties from mischief, while also providing for greater public participation. The Democratic Party should encourage affiliated state parties to lobby to change their primary statutes to provide for such a system. This would demonstrate to millions of Sanders' supporters that their concerns are being structurally addressed.

Proportional Representation

The press has commented that Democratic proportional representation rules reward losers and that Republican winner-take-all rules reward winners. Actually, this is a fair assessment. Democratic delegate apportionment is guaranteed to all presidential candidates who receive at least 15% of the vote. Winning a state means little in delegate apportionment since in close races the winner and loser can each get about the same number of delegates. And in anomalous situations, some state party rules would give one delegate each to candidates in congressional districts who respectively got 70% and 15% and 15% of the vote, even though the "winner" got five times the vote of each "loser."

Democrats are certainly not going to give up the basic democratic principle inherent in proportional representation. But there might be a provision adopted that would allow a state party to reserve a small percentage of its delegation to be awarded to the statewide winner. A rule could be adopted that would allow state parties to award one delegate to the winner of a congressional district while proportionally assigning the other delegates in that district. These changes would simultaneously reward "winning" without stripping losing candidates of their representation. It might have the additional effect of accelerating closure to the nominating process.

The Democratic Party has been broadening participation and promoting "full, meaningful and timely opportunity" for Democrats to engage in its presidential nominating process for almost 50 years. It has been tightening, tweaking and improving its internal rules. It now has a system that is very good, and very fair. But that doesn't mean it can't be made even better. Maybe the ideas presented here can be a start.