The 2016 Democratic National Convention adopted a resolution presented by the Clinton and Sanders campaigns to create a Unity Reform Commission (URC) to make recommendations on strengthening the Democratic Party, encouraging participation in the national convention delegate selection process, and changing the automatic unpledged delegate (Superdelegate) rules. The URC held its third of five meetings August 25-26, 2017 in Chicago. As with prior meetings, the Commission heard expert presentations and discussed issues. My sense is that although most members were chosen by the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, they are not locked into set positions and want to work towards both unity and reform.
This meeting focused on the caucus process, strengthening state parties, and superdelegates. There was some discussion of the party-building role caucuses can play, but my sense was most committee members (and state parties) would prefer primaries (if state law provided for such). The URC would like to see the DNC provide more support for state parties, and those efforts are underway. The URC resolution provides that Members of Congress, Governors, and most “distinguished party leaders” should remain automatic and unpledged delegates, but DNC members should stay automatic, but be pledged in proportion to state results – I think the URC will implement that resolution.
- National Convention delegates generally can be allocated to different presidential campaigns based on the results of a primary (state run primary), a party run primary (firehouse primary or unassembled caucuses), or party caucuses. Iowa, Nevada, and Washington State representatives made presentations on their precinct caucuses. It’s a multistage process which requires voters to attend caucuses, which elect delegates to county or legislative district caucuses, which in turn elect delegates to congressional district and State conventions, and those delegates elect national convention delegates.
- Iowa has a unique first-in-the-nation role and no one wants to change that.
- Some claim that caucuses foster party building and organizer training, which may be true, although organizing for primaries can have similar results.
I think the main reason for caucuses is that not all states provide for a primary. State parties therefor have to run their own processes, which will consist of a “caucus” of one form or another.
- Caucuses allow fewer voters to participate than primaries, and voters who have to work, or have accessibility issues, or are out of town, or just don’t have the time to spend the day at a caucus generally can’t participate.
- Caucuses also are expensive for state parties and can divert party resources.
- The URC is not likely to encourage additional caucuses, and some members spoke in support of state parties using firehouse primaries, if the state won’t hold a primary.
- The URC may recommend practices to make caucuses more accessible and streamlined, but changes will be up to the state parties to implement. For example, Iowa this year had a telephone caucus for military/oversees voters and encouraged childcare, as well as using a Microsoft reporting app. Nevada had “at-large” sites on the Vegas Strip and pre-registration.
- Washington State has a state-run primary, but has no party registration, a ballot that allows the choice of either party’s candidate, and all-mail balloting, so the party selects delegates through a caucus system. In 2016, 660,000 people voted in the non-binding primary (Hillary won), and 250,000 people (including 40,000 surrogate affidavits (absentee ballots)) participated in the caucus (Bernie won).
- If a candidate has less than a 15% turnout of supporters (threshold), voters can move around to join or create viable caucuses; eliminating this step would save time and facilitate some sort of absentee voting processes. Another issue is whether percentages are locked in at the first level, or reallocated depending on the number of delegates who show up at subsequent levels. Campaigns would prefer to have the number set at the caucus (as it is for primary states).
- Our Virginia experience involves assembled city/county caucuses up to 1984, local option for assembled caucus or firehouse primaries through 2000, and a primary since 2004. After we had nearly a million voters participate in 2008, I can’t see how we could go back to a process involving a few thousand voters. (Political participation shouldn’t be hard.)
Building State Parties
- In 2005, the DNC under Chairman Howard Dean adopted a 50-State Strategy which provided resources to state parties (approximately $25k/month to each state), much of which went to field organizers.
- In 2009, the DNC State Partnership Program (SPP) continued that effort, including providing $5k per month for data, compliance, and communications staff. The DNC continued to build its voter files and provide training. (Resources, however, were also directed to Organizing for America to support President Obama’s initiatives.)
- The current DNC, working with the Association of State Democratic Chairs, has upgraded the SPP to provide $10k per month, established a State Party Innovation Fund (SPIF) grant program (with a $10M goal), and is working with individual state parties to develop strategic plans. See news release
- What makes delegates “super”? First, they are automatic delegates, meaning that they don’t have to be elected through a state’s primary or convention processes. Second, they are unpledged, meaning that they don’t have to commit to a presidential candidate (until 10 days after the end of their state’s process), and a state’s superdelegates need not reflect voter presidential preferences in the state’s primary or convention process. (By the way, the DNC never uses the term “superdelegates.”)
- The URC resolution provided that Members of Congress, Governors, distinguished Democratic Party leaders (including the President/VP, former Presidents/VPs, and former House and Senate leaders) would remain as automatic unpledged delegates, but DNC members and former DNC Chairs would be automatic, but pledged in proportion to Presidential candidates’ percentages in state primaries (or caucuses).
- Some members suggested changes in that approach, including requiring elected officials to be pledged. But the URC’s recommendations must be considered by the DNC Rules & Bylaws Committee and then approved by the full DNC. The compromise that was reached at the Convention Rules Committee and unanimously adopted by the National Convention (the party’s highest decision making body) seems to provide the best approach going forward. So the main task is drafting the process for making DNC members and former DNC Chairs pledged delegates.
- There was some discussion of the role of superdelegates, including recognition that the GOP wished they had them this year and their potential role in preventing the party from nominating an unfit candidate. (Personally, I don’t really buy that.)
- The main reason to have unpledged elected officials is to facilitate the involvement of the party’s state and legislative leaders in the selection of the presidential candidate because they will have to work together in the campaign and in governing. Requiring U.S. Congress Members and Governors to run for delegate against their constituents didn’t work, so they stayed out of the process. The party is stronger if its elected officials are involved.
- I’ll do a post with further thoughts on the Superdelegate issue shortly.
“Other people pay the price of our divisions.” – Brad Martin, Democratic Party of Oregon, Executive Director
VA DNC Member
I was proud to represent Virginia on the Democratic National Committee for 12 years. I am in DC now, but still active in voter protection and Democratic Party rules. More about me, click here.