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

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.”

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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