Why the DNC’s Superdelegate Reforms Were a Major Victory for the Sanders Wing

From stripping power from superdelegates to enforcing financial oversight, backers of Bernie Sanders scored a number of huge wins at the DNC summer meeting. And they could have a major impact in 2020.

Branko Marcetic August 27, 2018

The DNC's summer meeting was more proof that the Democrats' Sanders wing is ascendant in the party. (Getty Images)

This past week­end was an aus­pi­cious date for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to attempt to come togeth­er in the name of uni­ty. As DNC mem­bers gath­ered at the Hyatt Regency Chica­go to dis­cuss whether or not to pass a pack­age of reforms spurred by the tur­bu­lent 2016 pri­ma­ry con­test, it couldn’t have escaped them they were doing so not only in the same city that 50 years ago saw par­ty divi­sions boil over into bat­tles between demon­stra­tors and Chica­go police, but on the very same date this chaos began to unfold.

This package of reforms is just a starting point for a wholesale transformation of the party.

Five decades lat­er, with nary a brawl in sight, the par­ty suc­cess­ful­ly put in place a hand­ful of sweep­ing reforms that its mem­bers hope will move the Democ­rats’ two pre­dom­i­nant wings — those rep­re­sent­ed chiefly by Hillary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders — toward greater uni­ty and, more impor­tant­ly, serve as the first step toward fix­ing what some pro­gres­sives say is a bro­ken party.

While the result is clear­ly a major vic­to­ry for the Sanders wing of the par­ty, Lar­ry Cohen — for­mer Sanders cam­paign advi­sor, chair­man of the Sanders-aligned Our Rev­o­lu­tion, and the vice-chair of the Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion — was quick to offer cred­it to the oth­er side.

While Our Rev­o­lu­tion helped lead the allies sup­port­ing this active­ly, it would not have been pos­si­ble with­out DNC Chair­man Tom Perez and his all-out mobi­liza­tion,” he says.

The most atten­tion-grab­bing mea­sure was the deci­sion to strip so-called superdel­e­gates — the 700 or so elect­ed offi­cials and par­ty appa­ratchiks whose out­size influ­ence over the nom­i­nat­ing sys­tem became a flash­point for pro­gres­sive frus­tra­tion dur­ing 2016 — of sig­nif­i­cant pow­er. While superdel­e­gates still hang on to their perks and their vot­ing pow­er on issues like the par­ty plat­form, as a result of the DNC deci­sion, they are now barred from vot­ing on the first bal­lot, and can only deter­mine the elec­toral out­come in the case of a con­test­ed primary.

Rein­ing in of superdel­e­gates’ pow­er was a key pri­or­i­ty for the Sanders wing of the par­ty, which views their exis­tence with sus­pi­cion. As I report­ed for In These Times in May 2016, superdel­e­gates were express­ly cre­at­ed by the par­ty estab­lish­ment in 1980 as a way to stop what one of their cre­ators termed out­lier can­di­dates,” such as George McGov­ern and Jim­my Carter.

While defend­ers of superdel­e­gates often claim the group has nev­er decid­ed a race, this isn’t strict­ly true: Superdel­e­gates open­ly boast­ed in 1984 that they had used their influ­ence in that year’s pri­ma­ry to ensure Wal­ter Mon­dale, the par­ty estab­lish­ment choice, end­ed up the nominee.

Superdel­e­gates were not near­ly as influ­en­tial in 2016, yet their over­whelm­ing sup­port for Hillary Clin­ton — along with the media’s habit of count­ing them in the del­e­gate totals through­out the race — cre­at­ed an aura of inevitabil­i­ty for Clin­ton that crit­ics feared was dri­ving down vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. The Asso­ci­at­ed Press infa­mous­ly called the race for Clin­ton on the back of superdel­e­gate totals just one day before vot­ing in the Cal­i­for­nia pri­ma­ry began.

The mea­sure was the most fierce­ly con­test­ed one. Cal­i­forn­ian Bob Mul­hol­land, a mem­ber of the DNC and as such him­self a superdel­e­gate, had ear­li­er charged that the attempt to elim­i­nate superdel­e­gates was a Putin oper­a­tion,” and insist­ed in advance of the meet­ing that we’re going to fight it like hell.” Oth­er elect­ed offi­cials called it an insult” and said it would do ter­ri­ble dam­age to par­ty har­mo­ny.” Con­gres­sion­al Black Cau­cus Chair­man Cedric Rich­mond, a pro-Clin­ton superdel­e­gate in 2016 who had likened Sanders’ poli­cies for tuition-free col­lege and uni­ver­sal health­care to ask­ing for a free car and a free home,” called it a solu­tion in search of a problem.”

Yet while oppo­nents attempt­ed to throw pro­ce­dur­al road­blocks to the reforms, they were sound­ly beat­en back, with DNC mem­bers over­whelm­ing­ly vot­ing in their favor. Crit­ics spent much of Sat­ur­day insist­ing on a two-thirds vote to enact the mea­sures, yet they ulti­mate­ly passed with around 75 per­cent support.

While the Sanders wing of the par­ty count­ed superdel­e­gate reform as a key vic­to­ry, its mem­bers stress that it was nei­ther the only one, nor even the most important.

That’s not the crux of what’s hap­pen­ing in the par­ty,” says Nomi­ki Kon­st, a for­mer Sanders del­e­gate and mem­ber of the DNC Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion, even as she calls the superdel­e­gate sys­tem an embar­rass­ment to the party.”

Sanders back­ers point to the reforms around trans­paren­cy as at least equal­ly impor­tant, requir­ing the DNC to be more trans­par­ent around its finances, oper­a­tions and rela­tion­ship with pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. The reform was part­ly a response to the rev­e­la­tions last year by for­mer inter­im DNC chair Don­na Brazile that the DNC and Clin­ton cam­paign had secret­ly signed a joint fundrais­ing agree­ment in 2015 giv­ing the cam­paign con­trol of key aspects of the DNC in exchange for rais­ing and invest­ing mon­ey for it. In prac­tice, much of the cash Clin­ton raised for the DNC end­ed up being spent on her own cam­paign, with only a trick­le mak­ing it to state par­ties—less than half of one per­cent.

Kon­st also sees this as a cru­cial step toward build­ing a nation­wide pres­ence for the par­ty, and reori­ent­ing it from the almost exclu­sive­ly pres­i­den­tial focus it took under Pres­i­dent Obama.

That’s a bil­lion-dol­lar indus­try,” she says of this laser focus on the pres­i­den­tial race. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has become an extra­or­di­nary mon­ey-mak­er for consultants.”

The biggest thing here is that we get rid of can­di­date addic­tion and start talk­ing about par­ty-build­ing,” says Cohen

Also sig­nif­i­cant are the reforms around pri­maries and cau­cus­es. Cau­cus­es, which favored Sanders dur­ing the 2016 pri­ma­ry, have long been crit­i­cized as flawed and unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, and the lat­est reforms man­date cau­cus­es include absen­tee vot­ing mea­sures, as well as a process for a writ­ten vote in the case of a recount.

The cau­cus states will do it because they won’t get seat­ed oth­er­wise,” says Lar­ry Cohen.

Mean­while, the pack­age of reforms also encour­ages state par­ties to run pri­maries instead of cau­cus­es, and urges state par­ties to work to imple­ment mea­sures such as same-day par­ty switch­ing and same-day auto­mat­ic registration.

This was a major demand from Sanders back­ers owing chiefly to what Cohen calls the shenani­gans” in the 2016 New York pri­ma­ry, when more than 125,000 Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers were stripped from the rolls, and frus­trat­ed Sanders vot­ers found on elec­tion day that they had the missed the dead­line to reg­is­ter as Democ­rats in the state. New York is the only state where reg­is­tered vot­ers have to declare their par­ty affil­i­a­tion more than six months in advance, and there is no in-per­son reg­is­tra­tion — all pro­vi­sions that crit­ics say dis­en­fran­chise younger vot­ers par­tic­u­lar­ly. But while New York is a dra­mat­ic exam­ple, numer­ous oth­er states set dead­lines for par­ty reg­is­tra­tion well before elec­tion day.

If you want to build a par­ty, you don’t throw up road­blocks to join it,” says Cohen.

But chang­ing these pro­vi­sions won’t be easy. Pri­maries are gov­erned by state gov­ern­ments, many of which are under the con­trol of Repub­li­can gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tures, iron­i­cal­ly a con­se­quence of the very decline of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty crit­ics say such road­blocks reinforce.

Cohen says pres­sur­ing state gov­ern­ments to open up pri­maries will be a pri­or­i­ty of Our Rev­o­lu­tion and oth­er groups from here on out. But activists like Kon­st are skep­ti­cal about the planned push to replace cau­cus­es with pri­maries, giv­en Repub­li­can con­trol of the leg­is­la­tures that will gov­ern the new pri­maries in some of these states.

It was not some­thing we pushed for,” she says.

Both agree, how­ev­er, that this pack­age of reforms is just a start­ing point for a whole­sale trans­for­ma­tion of the par­ty. Cohen says the next step will be return­ing to the issue of cor­po­rate influ­ence, one that flared up recent­ly after the DNC, at Chair­man Perez’s urg­ing, reversed a ban on fos­sil fuel indus­try dona­tions. Cohen ulti­mate­ly wants to see a turn to a small donor base, and for DNC offi­cials to start telling can­di­dates they’ll only get pop­u­lar sup­port by refus­ing cor­po­rate money.

The ulti­mate goal, how­ev­er, is to restore the party’s nation­al pres­ence and grass­roots support.

What this is about is to say Hey, this par­ty is open­ing up to par­ty-build­ing’,” says Cohen. Run peo­ple not only for the precinct, but at the coun­ty lev­el, and from there. That’s real­ly the build­ing block.”

He points to Texas as a par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing exam­ple, claim­ing that dozens of the state’s 254 coun­ties have no Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pres­ence at all. While Texas Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty chair Gilber­to Hino­josa did­n’t respond to queries to con­firm this, the Texas Democ­rats’ web­site cur­rent­ly has 26 coun­ty par­ties with Call Texas Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty” in lieu of any name and num­ber of an offi­cial in its list of coun­ty parties.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty doesn’t exist in most parts of Amer­i­ca, hon­est­ly,” says Kon­st, cit­ing research under­tak­en by the Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion. She urges pro­gres­sives and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) mem­bers to get involved in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and try to become DNC mem­bers as a first step toward revers­ing this process. Such a strat­e­gy could help engi­neer a shift in the par­ty from the inside, while also pres­sur­ing it from the outside.

This is a fun­da­men­tal change in the way we nom­i­nate our pres­i­dents,” Don Fowler, the nation­al chair­man” of the DNC from 1995 to 1997 and an oppo­nent of the reforms, said on Sat­ur­day. But if the Sanders wing has its way, it will only be the first step toward mak­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty more inclu­sive, demo­c­ra­t­ic and engaged with its grass­roots base.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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