The DNC Change Commission held its second meeting in Washington DC today to hear public comments on the presidential nomination process timing, the role of unpledged automatic or super delegates (SDs), and recommendations for improving caucuses, and begin its discussion of options.   The meeting was chaired by Congressman Clyburn (D-SC).  Virginians Hon. Alexis Herman and Hon. Jennifer McClellan attended as members of the Commission.  Below are my notes from the morning session.

The Commission was given documents regarding primary calendars, including those provided by state statute, and a map of caucus states.

I.  TIMING – the resolution setting up the Commission provided that the process should not begin until the first Tuesday in March, except states which are allowed to go earlier, and those must be after Feb.  1.

The DNC allowed for submission of comments by email and some were presented – including suggestions for regional primaries, rotating regional primaries, spreading out primaries, and praise for the Potomac Primary.

Curtis Gans, Director of the Study of the American Electorate at American University made a presentation.  He criticized the 1988 Super Tuesday Southern primary for starting the race to early primaries; this resulted in a process based on “state selfishness.”  It is more important to select the best person to be president than for a state to get more attention.   He recommended a bipartisan, durable system with less frontloading and less moving around.  He recommended starting with smaller, diverse, individual primaries, and a spread-out process – not regional primaries.   Regional primaries may result in different candidates representing different regions and split the party.  He opposes a rotation where it all changes every four years.  He favors a long process which worked this year, allowing candidates flexibility to skip certain states, 20-day filing deadlines to allow new candidates to file.   Spread out individual primaries will encourage grassroots and discourage negative campaigning – if you have 20 primaries on one day, you need to rely on negative TV.  He would prefer to start the whole process in March, but is okay with IA, NH, SC, and NV going early — it worked well in 2008.   In response to a question from Jeff Berman, he stated that there is an opportunity for cooperation with RNC in setting calendar and the GOP is likely to agree on starting date.

Hon. Dan Blue (Comm. Member, NC State Senator) – late primaries can be good.   In 2008, NC linked the presidential primary with state office primaries, the late primary got a lot of attention, and Obama and Democratic candidates won in November.  Grouping of 29 states on the same day is crazy – you need to break it up, spread out process. 

Note – It was claimed that most states have presidential and state primaries on the same day, but it’s not clear that this is true and certainly hasn’t been true in Virginia.

Hon. Jennifer McClellan (Comm. Member, Va. House, DPVA Vice Chair for Org) – Jennifer started by putting in a plug for Virginia’s  statewide candidates.  Virginia is unique – elections every year – the primary season is a kick off to a two year election cycle that can impact our governor’s race (the following year).  Having a primary that counts (with candidates coming in) motivates our base and raises money for both years.  The Potomac primary was helpful – same media market (most expensive, most voters in DC).  The only way that works was because that region was the only one having a primary.  She also noted the obstacles posed by state law and the need for a bipartisan approach – we cannot afford to run our own primary and other states are similarly situated.  Need to respect the role of the state legislature and parties. 

My thoughts:   The most important point re timing is that the DNC (even with the RNC) does not have the power to set a single primary date and is not writing on a blank slate.   State legislatures set primary schedules and proposed changes need to account for political realities – like IA and NH are going to go first.  Thus I believe that a rotating process, consisting of changing dates in every state every four years is a non-starter.  Super regional primaries, that don’t change, do run the risk of favoring candidates from certain regions (although famously this was not the case in the 1988 Super Tuesday Southern primary).  Mini-regional primaries, like last year’s Potomac Primary (VA, DC, MD), allow campaigns to focus their resources and states should consider such groupings.  As to the basic schedule – a long term process, starting in March for most states (with the now traditional early states of IA, NH, SC, and NV going after Feb. 1) makes sense.  Spreading out primaries, using bonus delegates, as was the case with NC and other states this year also allows for a full vetting of candidates and should result in a better choice.

II.  SUPER-DELEGATES – Commission resolution called for reduction in number and having delegates reflect the will of the voters.

E-comments – too many super delegates, their votes should be worth less than elected delegates, should reflect voter choices, elected officials should be allowed to participate without running against grassroots, candidates shouldn’t spend time wooing super delegates, all should be pledged.

Don Fowler (SC, former DNC Chair) — automatic unpledged delegates is the appropriate term (DNC has never used the term Super Delegate).  He supports having them, but the number and percentage is much too large and should be reduced.  These delegates are there for a reason other than selection of candidates – their guidance is helpful in addressing party issues.   Established by Hunt Commission (after 1980) to provide leadership, guidance, and counsel if there is a crisis; it was never intended that SDs would override voter’s choices.  There are now twice as many as there were initially; now all Congress, DNC has grown (over 400) — now 17% of the total delegates are SDs.  He recommends limiting DNC to Chair and 1st VC of each state, DNC national elected officers (120); Congress limited to only committee chairs or ranking members (and maybe subcommittee chairs or ranking members ) (150); keep governors (30), distinguished party leaders (25).   This would reduce total from 900 to 300 super delegates.  He noted that it would take a lot of political work at DNC.   He recommended that the Commission take a long range look at process, not just a response to 2008.

Other comments:  Another approach is to keep automatic delegates, but make them pledged – this would  be helpful to keep elected officials involved in party processes.;  Fowler would keep them unpledged.  It was a mistake to force members of congress and party leaders to have to run as delegates.  In 1984, there was a congressional caucus to chose SD members of Congress – this was essentially the first primary and helped Mondale.  We don’t want to go back to that process. 
Jennifer McClellan raised the concern that you might have states with no congress people in leadership positions and therefore no representation  – you could have members of Congress as additional automatic delegates, but have them pledged.  Fowler disagreed with this approach because it would put pressure on members of Congress to vote for candidates that they did not favor.   Fowler rejected the suggestion  that members be allowed to attend, but have no vote  – that’s what we had before 1984 and most didn’t attend.

My thoughts:  I think Fowler’s proposal is a good start – it could be augmented by expanding the number of PLEO (party leader and elected official) slots which are pledged, by e.g., an additional 140 members.   This would cut the number  of unpledged SDs by 2/3 and the total number by ½.

III.  CAUCUSES – Commission Resolution called for DNC criteria for caucus processes to  ensure adequate planning and staffing, setting of times and location to ensure full participation, use appropriate balloting measures, allow candidates to communicate with pledged participants, and encourage greater participating including absentee.

E-comments – initially confusing, but was an exciting process; caucuses allow greater participation; should have absentee participation; need space to accommodate everyone.

Larry Gates (Comm. Member, Kansas DP chair) – There are 18 caucus jurisdictions (14 states).  We need to encourage greater participation – absentee system.   In some states, state legislatures simply don’t want to fund primaries, so that’s what we have to do.

How would absentee work – if it is an assembled caucus, you would allow a proxy (I don’t like that idea), or move all to Saturday (that poses problems too – some people work on Saturday and poses a problem for some religious voters).  Concern that absentee participation negates the point of caucuses.  Gates suggests that it would not be no excuse absentee voting – need a reason.

Concern – too many different formats – suggest greater uniformity, which will allow better training, less confusion – e.g. Iowa is very different from Texas.  Note – there are different types – assembled (IA), unassembled or firehouse where vote and leave (old VA way), coordinate with primary (TX two step).
Concern about lack of secret ballot – but some states (IA) like the open process.

My thoughts – From a Virginia perspective, we used to have assembled caucuses (1980 and earlier), then unassembled caucuses (prior to 2004) –both were confusing, severely limited participation, and generally terrible processes that I would never want to do again.   If other states want to do it (IA) or if that’s the only choice because the legislature won’t give you a compliant primary, then they will still be used.  Greater standardization is a good idea, but states should be allowed flexibility to use the processes with which they are comfortable.

Lunch recess until 1:30.

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