Democratic Party officials took a major step Wednesday toward sharply reducing the role and influence of powerful political insiders in the presidential nominating process, a change sought by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and many other liberals after the 2016 campaign.
These insiders, called superdelegates, who are free to back any candidate regardless of how the public votes, would no longer be allowed to vote during the first ballot of the presidential nominating process at the party’s convention in most circumstances. Superdelegates would only be able to vote in extraordinary cases such as contested conventions, where the nomination process is extended through multiple ballots until one candidate prevails. They would still have a significant voice in other party debates outside of presidential nominations.
“This is a compromise that reduces that influence of superdelegates by taking them out of a first-ballot vote. Therefore, the activists that have been concerned that superdelegates will overturn the will of the voters should feel good about this,” said Elaine Kamarck, an influential member of the Democratic National Committee and its rules committee since 1997.
The party’s rules committee officially adopted the language Wednesday in advance of a final vote during the Democrats’ summer convention next month in Chicago. Members of the DNC are hoping the measure will move forward in August without fanfare, therefore settling the matter before November’s all-important midterm elections and well before the 2020 presidential campaign season.
Though superdelegates have never before overturned the will of Democratic voters in the presidential primary, their role caused deep tensions in the 2016 Democratic primary between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, when supporters of Sanders said these insiders — mostly elected officials, party leaders and donors — were emblematic of a “rigged” nomination system favoring Clinton.
“There’s been various iterations of the plan, but this is where most people came out and felt comfortable,” Kamarck said.
The changes are not without controversy. Some members of the party, particularly those designated as superdelegates, believe any reduction in their power is an unnecessary capitulation to Sanders and his supporters.
Donna Brazile, a former DNC chairwoman and a member of the party’s rules committee, said she abstained from voting on the new changes Wednesday because she believed the influence of superdelegates has been overstated.
In an email, Brazile said she did not believe in “taking away the vote from any individual.” Superdelegates, she said, “did not change the outcome of the 2016 nominating contest, as Mrs. Clinton received the bulk of the pledged delegates. She also received the majority of voters, and she won more states.”
“We are simply part of the ingredients,” she said of superdelegates, “not even the meat or the sauce.”
Others are opposed to the proposal because superdelegates have historically enjoyed an exclusive level of access to candidates. Some nonwhite members of the party believe such access is necessary to get presidential candidates to consider issues that affect minority groups.
Michael Blake, a New York assemblyman and vice chairman of the DNC, said he was sympathetic to the concerns of superdelegates who are members of minority groups. Regardless, Blake, who is black, said his concerns were mitigated because superdelegates have not been eliminated completely, and could become vitally important during any second round of votes in the nomination process.
Any presidential candidate would still be foolish to ignore the group, Blake said.
“Our power isn’t lessened,” Blake said. “Rather, this is about what’s the greatest good for all of us.”
Any attempt to derail the rules changes at the summer convention is thought to be a long-shot. Tom Perez, the party’s chairman, supports the reduction in superdelegate power, as do several other current and former party leaders. Perez, who ran for chairman on a platform of significant reforms, has also pledged several other changes to the party’s presidential nomination process since assuming office, including increased transparency surrounding the primary debate schedule and new reforms to increase voter participation.
In a 2017 message to supporters, he said the changes were necessary to ensure that “no candidate participating in our presidential nominating process gains any unfair advantage.”