This post sets forth my personal views and does not purport to set forth the views of the Democratic National Committee, the DNC’s Rules & Bylaws Committee, or the Democratic Party of Virginia.
On August 25, 2018, the Democratic National Committee will vote to issue the Call to the 2020 Democratic National Convention and adopt Delegate Selection Rules and relevant DNC Charter Amendments. The DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee (RBC) has proposed 2020 Rules that reform our Democratic Party processes, including by encouraging primaries, making caucuses more accessible and transparent, expanding voter protection, recognizing gender diversity, and formalizing Democratic candidate and elector requirements. You can find the draft documents here.
The proposed rules will also adjust the powers of “Superdelegates” (automatic delegates) so that they cannot vote on the first presidential ballot (unless a candidate already has a majority of the pledged and automatic delegates). See DNC Fact Sheet. This is a necessary reform that will strengthen our Party by facilitating the participation of party leaders and elected officials, while making it clear that 700 “Superdelegates” cannot overrule the presidential choice of 30 million primary voters.
Automatic delegates include DNC members, Distinguished Party Leaders (e.g. former Presidents and DNC Chairs), members of Congress, and Governors. In 2016, there were a total of 712 automatic delegates and 4,051 pledged delegates, for a total of 4,763 Convention delegate votes.
Currently “Superdelegates” have two powers – they are automatic and they are unpledged. “Automatic” means they don’t have to run and be elected as national convention delegates – the RBC proposal does not change this status.
“Unpledged” means they don’t have to reflect the presidential preferences of the Democratic voters of their state as expressed in primaries or caucuses. They can support any presidential candidate, at any time. The RBC proposal does not change this status either.
But if automatic unpledged delegates can vote on the first ballot, they can override the votes of their state’s primary voters, so a presidential candidate who lost the primary vote in a state can still win the majority of that state’s delegates.
And this can happen at the national convention – candidate A may get a majority of the pledged delegates, but if the automatic delegates disproportionately support candidate B, candidate B gets the nomination. That has never happened (yet), but is a possibility. Moreover, under the current system, there is a perception that a candidate can obtain an unfair advantage of locking up a large number of delegates before the first primary vote is cast. The Superdelegate issue has undermined public trust and confidence in the Democratic Party.
The RBC proposal allows automatic delegates to cast a vote on the first ballot in the presidential race only if their votes cannot override the popular vote. It preserves all of the other privileges of automatic delegates, including convention seating and accommodations, voting on committee reports, and voting on the Presidential second ballot. Automatic delegates also remain unpledged – they can endorse any presidential candidate at any time in the process.
As DNC Chairman Tom Perez has said, our rules need to reflect three principles to help us regain the trust of voters: (1) the will of the people reigns supreme; (2) no presidential candidate will have a lead before the voting starts; (3) our process should put our party in a significant position to win. The RBC proposal accomplishes those goals and deserves the full support of DNC members.
Fixing the Superdelegate issue will allow the DNC to focus on the great work it is doing – building state parties, working to elect Democrats from the local level to the Senate, outreach to all communities, providing training, registering voters, encouraging turnout, fighting to protect the vote (including securing our elections), and many other activities that will win elections.
SOME QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1. Doesn’t changing automatic delegate voting status require a DNC Charter change?
No, it doesn’t. The RBC counsel so ruled and the RBC adopted his ruling, nearly unanimously.
The proposal does not change one word, one jot, or one tittle of the DNC’s Charter. Therefore, no Charter change is required. The relevant provision is Article 2, Section 4(h) which provides automatic status for “unpledged” delegates. The proposal does not change that provision.
But don’t we need to revise the definition of “delegate” to change the voting status? No, the Charter does not define “delegate” nor set forth its privileges. Under the current system, being a delegate doesn’t necessarily mean having a full vote. For example, some Democrats Abroad delegates have 1/2, not full, votes. If a state violates the delegate selection rules, its delegates can have their votes reduced or eliminated, all without a Charter change.
2. Why does the Charter change issue matter?
The DNC requires the vote of a simple majority of its members to adopt the 2020 Call and Rules. If a Charter change is required, it will require a 2/3 vote, allowing a minority of DNC members to block the proposal rules. Fortunately, such an amendment is not required.
3. Why have automatic delegates at all?
One of the strongest recent criticisms of the DNC was that it has been too focused on the Presidency and not on building the Democratic Party from the ground up. Involving party leaders and elected officials in the Convention advances the goal of building a Party that works all day, every day to elect Democrats at all levels. Moreover, even without a first ballot vote, experienced party leaders and elected officials at the convention will still be heard and may appropriately use their experience to influence the process.
4. Why allow automatic delegates to vote only if they cannot affect the nomination?
Most people recognize that automatic delegates should not be able to overrule the choice of Democratic primary and caucus voters. But, as a practical matter, most nominees have secured the number of pledged delegates needed to nominate by time of the convention. The first ballot voting provision was suggested by the Chair of the Association of State Democratic Committees to allow DNC members to vote in that circumstance.
5. Why allow automatic delegates to vote on the second ballot?
If the vote gets to a second ballot, it will be because Democratic voters have not chosen a candidate. In that circumstance, the experience of party leaders and elected officials will help guide the Convention to a good choice.
6. Aren’t Superdelegates needed to block a terrible candidate like Trump?
No. Nearly all of the GOP leadership opposed Trump, but he was able to win the GOP nomination with 70% of the convention vote. Superdelegates, comprising 15% of the convention, wouldn’t have blocked him, and it’s hard to see a party’s nominee chosen in disregard of primary voter preferences being elected in the fall. Democratic voters need to vote responsibly – no one should be counting on Superdelegates to bail them out.
7. What if a Democratic candidate gets involved in a big scandal prior to the Convention – can’t Superdelegates prevent the nomination?
No, because they are only 15% of the total, and, more importantly, pledged delegates are just that – pledged. They are not irrevocably bound. In the unlikely circumstance that our candidate is unfit to be nominated, pledged delegates need not support that candidate.
8. Why not adopt the Unity Reform Commission approach to Superdelegates?
As guided by the 2020 National Convention resolution, the Unity Reform Commission adopted a proposal that left elected officials with an unpledged vote and made DNC members pledged according to the primary vote. I know that some members of Congress strongly believe that they should be given voting status, but other members do not share that view. DNC members expressed concerns about creating two categories of automatic delegates and wanted all to be treated the same way.
The problem with pledged automatic delegates is in the implementation – if a candidates A and B each get 50% of a State’s vote, but all 10 of the State’s automatic delegates prefer candidate A, what do you do? You can’t make delegates vote for a candidate they don’t like (per the Unit Rule). URC Option 1 provided that each candidate would get 5 votes, cast by the Convention Secretary on behalf of the state, separating the votes from the delegates, and essentially taking that vote away, but in a non-transparent manner. Option 2 set forth a system of determining which automatic delegates got to vote and when they were replaced by alternates – I forwarded a similar proposal to the URC – but this option is just too complicated.
The Unity Reform Commission has unanimously endorsed the RBC’s proposed Call and rules as carrying forth the spirt of the Commission’s recommendations.
9. Are DNC members and elected officials being “disenfranchised”?
No. Automatic delegates have a number of privileges, but those privileges should not extend to the ability to override the presidential choice of Democratic primary voters. Moreover, the RBC proposal changes the existing rules so automatic delegates can run for delegate positions, with a full vote. If they are elected pledged delegates, they are no longer automatic delegates (but would retain their DNC seats).
10. Does the DNC proposal discriminate against minorities?
Of course not. The Affirmative Action/Outreach provisions of Rules have been strengthened and apply to the Convention. In fact, the URC proposals include party support of party development, inclusion of young voters, and better voter outreach programs into communities of color. The automatic delegate group is less diverse than the convention as a whole and is certainly more male. The RBC proposal would not reduce the diversity of our convention delegates.
11. Isn’t this all just to address concerns raised by the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016?
No. Concerns about Superdelegates have arisen every time there has been a close presidential nomination process. Rev. Jesse Jackson opposed Superdelegates in the 1980s. The Obama campaign had serious concerns in 2008, and Superdelegates could have changed the nominee. In 2009, DNC created the Change Commission, which recommended making Superdelegates pledged. The DNC did not adopt that recommendation, but it reduced the number and percentage of automatic delegates. There was a lot of criticism of Superdelegates in 2016 – but the concern that party leaders can override the popular Democrat vote isn’t new. This proposal looks forward.
12. Why are we rushing to address this issue? Why can’t we put this off?
The July 2016 Convention adopted the resolution establishing the Unity Reform Commission. The Commission met throughout 2017 and issued its Report by year-end. The DNC RBC has considered these issues for the past six months, in 80 hours of public meetings. These issues have been extensively debated for two years, and DNC members will have the opportunity to discuss them at our August meeting.
The DNC needs to adopt the Call and Rules in August 2018, so the RBC can send out those materials, and the regulations, model plan, and checklist to state parties by the end of 2018. Following prior schedules, state parties will likely have to submit their delegate selection plans by May 2019. The RBC likely will approve those plans by August 2019. State parties start implementing their plans in September, 2019. Some states have presidential candidate filings due by December 2019. Primaries and Caucuses start in February 2020. The state delegate selection process ends by June 20, 2020. And we nominate the next President of the United States by July 16, 2020.
Now is the time for the DNC to adopt the proposed 2020 Rules.
The author is in his third term as an elected member of the Democratic National Committee fromVirginia, and his first term on the DNC’s Rules & Bylaws Committee. He is a life-long Democratic Party volunteer and served two terms as the Democratic Party of Virginia Vice Chair for Rules. Again, the views above, however, are his own.