Democrats Cut Party Leaders' Power to Pick Presidential Nominee

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats voted to dramatically reduce the influence of superdelegates on the party’s presidential nomination process as part of an effort to move past the fissures of the 2016 election as candidates gear up for the next one.

The measure passed by a voice vote Saturday at the party’s summer conference in Chicago, with a small fraction voting against it. “Today we demonstrated the values of the Democratic Party,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said after the vote.

Democrats Cut Party Leaders' Power to Pick Presidential Nominee

The 700 or so superdelegates -- party elders including Democratic National Committee members, members of Congress, and former presidents -- will no longer be able to vote in the first round of balloting at the party’s 2020 convention unless there’s already a clear winner based on the results of the party’s primaries and caucus.

If the nominating process moves past a first round, something that hasn’t happened since 1952, superdelegates would be able to vote.

Earlier, Perez called for “a clear statement to people who share our values that we trust you and we’re going to take some bold measures to earn your trust so you will join our party and join our fight to take back our democracy.”

The move is an effort to push back against what even many party leaders acknowledged were perception problems in 2016 leading some voters to conclude that insiders had an outsized role in selecting the party’s presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Sanders’s Demands

There had been grumbling about the superdelegate system during the drawn-out 2008 primary battle between Barack Obama and Clinton. But it was only after Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters spent months in 2016 complaining about the mechanism and demanding structural reforms that the DNC started down the path of an overhaul.

The Sanders camp argued that superdelegates had the power to overturn what they said was the will of the Democratic primary electorate with their votes at the party’s convention. They also agitated as Clinton, in her second run for the nomination, secured the backing of the vast majority of the superdelegates early on in the primary process.

Democrats Cut Party Leaders' Power to Pick Presidential Nominee

Defenders of superdelegates note that, in the more than three decades since they were created, their votes have never changed the outcome of the party’s primaries and caucuses. Superdelegates comprised about 15 percent of the total delegates to the 2016 convention; only if the vast majority of them had supported Sanders would he have been able to win the nomination by overcoming Clinton’s 400-delegate edge following months of primaries and caucuses across U.S. states and territories.

Sanders heralded Saturday’s vote as “an important step forward in making the Democratic Party more open, democratic and responsive to the input of ordinary Americans.” He also thanked Perez by name in a short statement.

Reform Commission

The DNC created the Unity Reform Commission, composed of both Clinton and Sanders supporters, to work through concerns about the DNC, including the superdelegate system.

After eight months of meetings and draft proposals, the panel settled on a plan which scales back a system created after the intra-party fights of the 1980 nominating process and Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan.

On Aug. 23, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee fielded last-ditch efforts to modify the plan, including a measure that would have allowed superdelegates to vote on the first ballot but required that they make no indication of who they supported until the end of primary season, or agree to forfeit their votes if opting to endorse a candidate. Other, more procedural efforts Saturday to block the changes to superdelegate rules were rejected by a majority of DNC members.

Solution Seeks Problem

Before Saturday’s vote, Don Fowler, a former chair of the DNC and the South Carolina Democratic Party, warned members that the changed policy would “disenfranchise” hundreds of people of color among the superdelegates.

Democrats Cut Party Leaders' Power to Pick Presidential Nominee

Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, warned in a letter to Perez last week that the plan amounted to “a solution in search of a problem. Unelected delegates have never gone against the will of primary voters in picking Democratic presidential nominees.”

The DNC didn’t move to eliminate caucuses, something many Clinton supporters had hoped to see happen. Opponents argued that the time-consuming caucus system discourages many voters -- including shift workers, people with disabilities, and parents of young children -- who may not be able to dedicate hours to casting their votes. The DNC did, though, set rules calling for making caucuses more accessible.

The DNC also voted Saturday to add rules aimed at making primaries more accessible to any Democrat who wants to participate, including encouraging same-day voter registration and party switching to the Democratic Party. The party-switching recommendation is aimed at appealing to Sanders supporters and others who don’t typically consider themselves Democrats.

In addition, DNC members voted to require candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination to agree that they’re members of the party, and that they’ll serve as Democrats if elected.

That’s a measure that, on its face, is aimed at Sanders, who represents Vermont in the Senate as an independent and who’s declined to join the party, even as he’s sought its presidential nomination and pushed for reforms of party procedures.

It’s also a way to ensure that future candidates who haven’t served in elected office -- various celebrity names have been floated at times as potential Democratic candidates for 2020, from Oprah Winfrey to Mark Cuban -- will stay committed to the party that put them on the general election ballot in all 50 states.

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