Democrats to Keep Controversial Superdelegates

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Before 2008, your average American might not have known what a Democratic Party superdelegate was. But that year these mysterious party insiders became a feature of the daily news cycle as the fierce presidential-primary battle swept across the country. In a neck-and-neck race, the party confronted the very real possibility that these unelected delegates to its national convention might support Hillary Clinton in sufficient numbers to give her the nomination, despite Barack Obama's slim but indisputable lead among pledged delegates, who are assigned by the results of state primaries and caucuses. The prospect of Democratic insiders taking the nomination away from the first African-American to qualify for it threatened to seriously damage party unity, and prompted a move to reform the Democrats' nomination process.

But recently a party committee quietly tossed out a plan to take nominating power away from the superdelegates—former presidents, current senators and Congress members, members of the Democratic National Committee, and other party luminaries such as labor leaders. The superdelegates currently have automatic seats at the convention and are free to vote for whichever presidential candidate they please.

After Obama secured the party's nomination, he urged the DNC to create a commission to examine superdelegates' influence and other shortcomings in the nomination process. The Democratic Change Commission (whose members included Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina) took a tough stance. Superdelegates, it recommended, should be required to vote for a candidate assigned to them, based on the results of their state's caucus or primary.

"We need to show deference to what the party members in our state have done," said McCaskill, the commission's co-chair, in December, when the recommendations were announced and forwarded to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee for approval.

But the rules committee took a dim view of this proposal. While endorsing recommendations to dilute the superdelegates' influence (mostly by increasing the number of ordinary delegates), it quietly nixed the redefinition of their voting powers at it July 10 meeting. How quietly? Enough that even some members of the change commission hadn't yet heard about it when NEWSWEEK spoke to them last week.

"That's going to be disappointing for a number of grassroots delegates across the country who worked very hard on this," said one commissioner, Rebecca Prozan, an assistant district attorney in San Francisco. "We need to make sure that the candidates are out convincing voters in the cornfields of Iowa, the South, and Latino communities in Arizona, not spending time convincing superdelegates."

Activists are indeed unhappy with the development. "Any reform that allows superdelegates to overturn the vote and will of Democratic voters nationwide is not real reform," said Charles Chamberlain, political director of Democracy for America, the reform group founded by former DNC chair Howard Dean.

Why would the rules committee do such a thing? After all, the proposed reform would have allowed superdelegates to keep their convention seats and even to attend as nonvoting delegates if they couldn't stomach the candidate they would have been assigned to represent. It ensured the active participation of party elites—whose engagement can be vital to the success of nominees and presidents alike—while guaranteeing that they could never mount a coup against the voters' preferred candidate.

"People ask: isn't it enough for folks to have floor privileges and a hotel room and not have an actual vote?" says rules-committee co-chair James Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "The answer is: what you're doing is creating two classes of delegates, people with the vote and people without the vote. Clearly, the people at the grassroots level should be the predominant voice. But if you don't give elected officials a real voice, they are basically second-class citizens."

Political realities played a role as well, as any reforms have to be endorsed by the DNC, whose 447 members are all superdelegates. "The rules committee did not think that the full DNC would vote to take away their own voting rights," says rules-committee member Elaine Kamarck, an expert on the presidential-nomination process at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who has previously argued that superdelegates should be eliminated altogether. "It was always going to be difficult to pass this because you were asking a large group of people to vote against their own self-interest," Kamarck adds. "Frankly, this was not a big enough issue with enough political pressure being put on the rules committee to accomplish that."

The result was a compromise, whereby superdelegates will keep their powers but will have their collective influence diluted from about 20 percent of voting delegates to about 15 percent. This has allowed the DNC to paper over the differences. "We're proud of the work both the Democratic Change Commission and [the rules committee] have done to increase the overall impact and influence of the grassroots on the ... nominating process," the DNC press office replied by e-mail to a NEWSWEEK query. "Each took a different approach, but both took seriously the charge ... to increase the power of the grassroots."

As reforms go, it's fairly mild stuff. In effect, it turns the clock back to 1984, when 14 percent of convention ballots were in the hands of superdelegates. That's a far cry from the 1972 and 1976 election cycles, when there were no superdelegates at all.

As a practical matter, the changes are unlikely to mean much, at least for 2012, when President Obama will presumably not face a serious nomination challenge. Extremely close, protracted primary contests like the one in 2008 are rare events, and even in that race the superdelegates didn't change the outcome.

"My personal view was that the superdelegates were no longer a particularly important part of the nomination system," says Kamarck, "and I supported the change commission's views on this because of the public reaction I'd seen in 2008. But it's kind of a moot point. Ever since 1984, the superdelegates have always followed the will of the voters, and that's where they were in 2008." She adds: "The number of superdelegates has been reduced by 5 percent, and that's pretty good."

But other critics argue that an important principle is at stake, one that shapes rank-and-file voters' perceptions of what—and whom—the party really stands for. "As a DNC member who is regularly engaged with grassroots activists, I couldn't defend the system in 2008 and tell people my vote should count more than that of somebody who stood in the snow to register their vote," says Sam Spencer, a Democratic national committeeman for Maine. "The superdelegate system is an outdated and undemocratic way of doing things that's unsuited for modern times. The farther we veer away from one person, one vote, the worse it is for our party. If we let the current system stand in light of what happened in 2008, it seems pretty clear this is never going to change."

Technically, it's not too late for Democrats to change their mind. Spencer and his DNC colleagues will vote on the rules committee's recommendations at their Aug. 19–20 meeting in St. Louis, but sources say this is usually just a formality.

Still, members are likely to hear grumbling from activists in the weeks ahead. "I'd imagine that the people who want the superdelegates retained probably don't want anyone to believe it's possible to overturn the ruling," says Democracy for America's Chamberlain. "It might be difficult, but I'm confident it's possible."