Berniecrats Score Another Major Win Against the Democratic Establishment

Under proposed reforms pushed by backers of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential primary would take place on a much fairer playing field than in 2016.

Cole Stangler December 11, 2017

As a result of the Unity Reform Commission's recommendations, the Democratic Party could see major changes to the superdelegate system. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

This past week­end, pro­gres­sive forces scored a sig­nif­i­cant — if ten­ta­tive — vic­to­ry in the long bat­tle to make the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty more democratic.

Taken together, these reforms would lay the foundation for a very different Democratic primary campaign in 2020.

Meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C. for the fifth and final time this week­end, the party’s Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion vot­ed to rec­om­mend a slate of reforms that, if ful­ly imple­ment­ed, would broad­ly democ­ra­tize key struc­tures and process­es with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that affect how can­di­dates are nominated.

At the top of the list: a long-await­ed pro­pos­al that slash­es by 60 per­cent the num­ber of superdel­e­gates — a neb­u­lous col­lec­tion of par­ty insid­ers whose votes in pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tions are unbound by the results of pri­maries and cau­cus­es. In 2016, superdel­e­gates over­whelm­ing­ly backed Hillary Clin­ton over Bernie Sanders, many pledg­ing their sup­port to Clin­ton before any oth­er can­di­dates had entered the race. Some Sanders back­ers have claimed that this ear­ly sup­port helped swing the elec­tion in Clinton’s favor from the outset.

Although both camps have expressed their desire to move on from the race between Clin­ton and Sanders, the Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion owes its roots to last year’s hot­ly-con­test­ed pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry. Fac­ing pres­sure from Sanders sup­port­ers to abol­ish superdel­e­gates entire­ly, at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion last July, Clin­ton del­e­gates agreed to launch the reform com­mis­sion. The group counts 21 mem­bers: 10 appoint­ed by Clin­ton, 8 appoint­ed by Sanders, and 3 cho­sen by the chair of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee, for­mer Labor Sec­re­tary Tom Perez, who was elect­ed to the posi­tion in Feb­ru­ary with broad back­ing from Clin­ton supporters.

While far-reach­ing in scope, the commission’s rec­om­men­da­tions will not imme­di­ate­ly take effect. Under the agree­ment bro­kered at the party’s con­ven­tion last sum­mer, the pro­pos­als now pro­ceed to the DNC’s rules and bylaws com­mit­tee, which has six months to approve the changes. Regard­less of what the bylaws com­mit­tee decides, all 447 DNC mem­bers will also have the chance to vote on the changes in fall 2018 at their next full com­mit­tee meet­ing. Still, the Sanders camp is feel­ing confident.

The Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion pro­pos­als, assum­ing adop­tion by the DNC in 2018, lead to a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that would be a bea­con in vot­ing rights and trans­paren­cy,” says Lar­ry Cohen, vice chair of the com­mis­sion and chair of Our Rev­o­lu­tion, the polit­i­cal action orga­ni­za­tion that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ pres­i­den­tial campaign.

The reduc­tion of the num­ber of superdel­e­gates is arguably the commission’s most sig­nif­i­cant pro­pos­al. If enact­ed, this change would effec­tive­ly cut the num­ber of such del­e­gates, cur­rent­ly num­ber­ing 715, by about 400. Superdel­e­gate priv­i­leges would remain for sit­ting gov­er­nors and mem­bers of Con­gress as well as for­mer pres­i­dents, for­mer vice pres­i­dents and for­mer DNC chairs.

The com­mis­sion also called for major changes in the more than dozen states and ter­ri­to­ries that orga­nize pres­i­den­tial cau­cus­es, includ­ing Iowa, which holds the close­ly-watched first con­test of the pri­ma­ry. Under the pro­pos­al, these states would allow for same-day vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and same-day change in par­ty affil­i­a­tion — moves designed to bol­ster turnout. The DNC has less author­i­ty over pri­maries, which are orga­nized by state gov­ern­ments, but the com­mis­sion called on par­ties in these states to push for the same changes.

The com­mis­sion also made rec­om­men­da­tions to increase scruti­ny over bud­getary mat­ters and admin­is­tra­tive deci­sions, and gen­er­al­ly boost trans­paren­cy in the oper­a­tion of the DNC.

Tak­en togeth­er, these reforms would lay the foun­da­tion for a very dif­fer­ent Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry cam­paign in 2020. In 2016, Sanders sup­port­ers main­tained that superdel­e­gates blocked the Sanders cam­paign from gain­ing ear­ly momen­tum due to their sup­port for Clin­ton. And strict reg­is­tra­tion rules were blamed for turn­ing off inde­pen­dent, left-lean­ing vot­ers and pre­vent­ing them from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pri­ma­ry. If the commission’s rec­om­men­da­tions are imple­ment­ed, it would remove some of the bar­ri­ers that cur­rent­ly make it dif­fi­cult for Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates who are not affil­i­at­ed with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment to run in primaries.

Still, the reform commission’s work is not with­out its crit­ics. Last Thurs­day, in a let­ter to DNC Chair Perez and mem­bers of the com­mis­sion, a col­lec­tion of 14 pro­gres­sive groups said the par­ty need­ed to do away with superdel­e­gates entirely.

We main­tain still more can — and must — be done to build trust with the party’s pro­gres­sive base and per­suad­able vot­ers alike that the par­ty lives up to its val­ues of fair­ness, trans­paren­cy, and inclu­siv­i­ty,” said the let­ter, signed by groups like Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed, MoveOn​.org, Social Secu­ri­ty Works and Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca. That con­vic­tion can only be strength­ened with a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing process decid­ed by vot­ers alone, with­out the poten­tial for that judge­ment to be over­ruled by well-con­nect­ed elites.”

That let­ter includ­ed anoth­er sig­na­to­ry, emblem­at­ic of the party’s inter­nal pow­er strug­gle that shows no signs of wan­ing: Our Revolution.

Jane Kleeb, a mem­ber of the Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion who also serves on the board of Our Rev­o­lu­tion and as chair of the Nebras­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, applaud­ed the reforms in a more con­cil­ia­to­ry video post­ed on Saturday.

We still have a long way to go,” said Kleeb, describ­ing the com­plex process required for the rec­om­men­da­tions to take effect. But if you were watch­ing the DNC over the last sev­er­al years and hop­ing that things would change, things are changing.”

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Fol­low him @colestangler.
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