The State Convention Gambit: How Sanders Lost Delegates in Minnesota

The rigged electoral system is overseen for the Democratic wing of the duopoly at the national level by the Democratic National Committee. But election theft is initially executed through the state parties. Ballot Bandits expert Greg Palast has explained how California rigged its primary election by preventing independents from voting. He calls the California elections a “crime scene.” Palast estimated the number of suppressed votes would be at least comparable to Clinton’s resulting margin of victory in California. As it turns out, there are more uncounted ballots than Clinton’s total votes. The California election, which was the basis for her coronation by the media and Obama. is in fact far from decided. A separate issue is the continued use in California of hackable Sequoia election machines. Palast says “vote suppression does not come cheap.” Like mass media propaganda, lobbying, and influence peddling, election theft is also a function of money in politics.

Another tool of the state parties to maintain their plutocratic control behind democratic window-dressing is the State Convention.   Use of the State Convention for democratic purposes requires organization, strategy, and leadership which can be bought or frustrated by money in politics. Minnesota’s June 4 State Convention illustrated the techniques by which the minority of Clinton supporters in control of an undemocratic Democratic party can defeat a majority while also adding to Clinton’s delegate count.

Sanders won the Minnesota caucuses in March by over 61% of the vote. Sanders’ landslide victory should have been sufficient for his delegates to take control of the Minnesota party at its State Convention, pass a favorable agenda for the Convention, adopt state rules subjecting its Superdelegates’ to the will of the landslide majority, and elect Sanders’ supporters as members of the DNC. None of this happened. The Convention should have given Sanders at least 57 of Minnesota’s 93 delegates, had they been divided proportionately But he has only 47, including 46 pledged delegates selected by the Congressional District Conventions and the State Convention, plus the one elected unpledged DNC member verbally pledged to Sanders, as discussed below. Of the remainder, three unpledged Superdelegate incumbent politicians favor Sanders, while the rest are either delegates pledged to Clinton or are Clinton-leaning unpledged delegates.

Minnesota Democrats are proud of their states’ national blue state status, having sent Democrats to the electoral college for a longer unbroken series of elections than any other state. Minnesota also takes pride in its progressive influence on the rest of the country, and in its clean, democratic brand of politics. Steve Simon, Minnesota’s popular Democrat Secretary of State expressed such views in his speech to the Convention.

If a strong reform message on behalf of the Sanders campaign were to come to Philadelphia from anywhere in the country, it would likely come from a state like Minnesota. But no such message emerged from the DFL State Convention.   It is worth telling why it did not in some detail, as an example of what is likely happening in other states as well. It is a story of how a soft form of rigging takes place in the state parties, even in a blue state with wide open caucuses. It also shows how the disorganization of the Sanders campaign played into that rigging. Sanders failed to invest resources needed to gain the potential advantages from his landslide victory in Minnesota.

DNC Superdelegates

The most important business transacted at the state convention with respect to Sanders’ nomination was the election of Democratic National Committee (DNC) members. DNC members not only control the national party and its National Convention, but are also Superdelegates.

Each state delegate had four votes to cast for Minnesota’s four DNC positions.   Had the Sanders campaign focussed its delegates’ support on just two women and two men candidates by running a qualified and diverse slate clearly vetted and endorsed by the Sanders’ campaign, preferably supported by a direct written request from Sanders, communicated in advance of the Convention to Sanders delegates, there is no reason why the large Sanders majority of delegates should not have been translated into winning all four DNC seats.   But the State Convention elected only one announced Sanders supporter of the four members that Minnesota is sending to the important DNC.   The other three newly elected DNC members were endorsed by the state Party, which is controlled by Clinton supporters. Sanders therefore lost three Superdelegate votes that he should have been able to win had the Sanders forces been organized. They were not.

Democrats are proactive about diversity and urge their state delegates to vote for diversity. Of four clearly pro-Sanders candidates for the DNC there was one white and one highly qualified Hispanic among the women candidates, and two white men. One of the men was not particularly impressive, while the other man who supported Sanders narrowly lost to two men who were endorsed by the state party. The Hispanic woman who supported Sanders won. The highest vote of the four went to an up and coming young African-American officer in the state party. Without endorsing either Clinton or Sanders he spoke in support of making democratic reforms in the party, which was a message acceptable to the Sanders delegates who obviously did vote for him in preference to one of the candidates who had expressly endorsed Sanders’. The winner is free both to vote as a Superdelegate for Clinton and otherwise work for her nomination on the DNC without breaking any pledges.

As it happened, it was not even made clear that the Convention was voting for Superdelegates by electing the DNC members. No clearly identified spokesperson for the Sanders campaign encouraged unity at the Convention behind the two Sanders candidates of each gender As a result, Sanders sacrificed the opportunity to pick up three additional Superdelegates in Minnesota. Instead of registering +4, Sanders registered -2 Superdelegates for a spread of six Superdelegate votes due to lack of organization.

If this loss were extrapolated across the rest of the country it could represent maybe a 300 Superdelegate spread between Clinton and Sanders, which would make up about a third of the difference between them in delegate math, before even considering the remainder of the Superdelegates who might have been subjected to state party rules.

Pledged Delegate Selection

Instead of focussing on these Superdelegates where important gains could have been made, the Sanders campaign made what appeared to be a poorly conceived and ultimately counterproductive effort to influence the selection of pledged delegates within the sub-caucus of Sanders delegates. This turned out to be the last order of business at the Convention before time ran out.

Since the delegates selected by the Sanders sub-caucus, whoever they may be, were already pledged to vote for Sanders, a time-saving lottery could have been used for this purpose. Selection by lottery would not have made any difference to Sanders’ delegate strength. However, at a messy National Convention that Sanders has promised, there may well be important floor fights that will require tight solidarity among Sanders’ pledged delegates. It would then be useful to have delegates who are informed and fully prepared to take on those floor fights in accordance with strategies coordinated by the campaign. Certainly the Sanders campaign had the resources for more effective vetting than was possible in the 30 seconds allowed for the presentations by 200 would-be delegates at the state Convention.

For this reason a slate of pledged delegates competently organized and reliably vetted by the campaign in advance of the Convention could have had some value at the National Convention, depending upon Sanders’ intention to engage in a floor fight over rules. Had there been some evidence of competent vetting by the campaign for this purpose, according to transparent and convincing criteria, such a slate might well have been accepted by the state convention delegates, even though over a third of the Sanders’ delegates had hopes of playing the odds of becoming national delegates themselves.   Advance organizing among these nearly 200 delegates who had formally expressed ambitions to be elected as National Convention delegates during the month prior to the state convention should not have been a difficult task for an organized campaign.

However a group of candidates for the national delegate positions who did stand as a slate showed no evidence of such vetting by the campaign. They claimed to be supported by Sanders and his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver. But the mailing they had sent out a few days in advance of the Convention gave no evidence of such support. They presented no letter from the campaign. The group claiming this support was neither representative of the state (most coming from Minneapolis), nor did they demonstrate that they had been vetted seriously by the campaign according to transparent and convincing criteria demonstrating that they were deserving of the honor of attending the National Convention to support Sanders in a floor fight.

Coming as the last order of business, this proffered slate had not evidenced any leadership role in the convention up to that point, though such a leadership role had been noticeably missing from the previous DNC member selection, and from other matters. The Sanders campaign had a far greater legitimate interest in designating and electing the DNC members than it had with respect to the precise identity of the pledged delegates. Neither the slate, nor the campaign it purported to represent, had weighed in on such important matters as the approval of the Agenda, adoption of the Rules, the single “sense of the Convention” resolution on Superdelegates discussed below, or maintaining a quorum necessary for electing key party officials deliberately scheduled at the end of the agenda.

Since there had apparently been no prior outreach to others of the nearly 200 delegates who also wanted to be considered for the 20 pledged delegate and alternate positions, the slate gave the appearance of a cabal with no credible claim of endorsement by the campaign. It took a motion from the floor to even get the slate to introduce themselves, let alone give an explanation why they should jump the queue to become national convention delegates in preference to others who were personally eager to compete for that honor.   At no time did the slate even argue that the campaign needed them as loyal soldiers in an anticipated floor fight to justify the campaign’s interference in the selection process.

Without convincing explanation, the attempt at preempting a democratic process of individual election smacked of cronyism to many Sanders delegates who had not been consulted. The slate justified themselves solely by identity politics, but the delegates ultimately selected represented pretty much the same diversity. As a consequence of the campaign’s poor advance organization and its poor presentation at the convention, the “Bernie” slate was overwhelmingly rejected by the same Sanders delegates who had been passionately shouting for Bernie throughout the day. Thus a good idea of taking an organized approach to the convention by the Bernie majority was rejected by Sanders delegates when it manifested solely in a disorganized and poorly justified manner.

It should be mentioned that in the Clinton breakout sub-caucus the effort to coordinate the delegate selection was even more inept. The effort of a person who asserted authority from the Clinton campaign to appoint the Clinton delegates himself, rather than elect them democratically, was challenged as inauthentic and was rejected out of hand.

Running Out the Clock

A good slate of pledged national delegates competently presented to the Bernie sub-caucus would have saved a great deal of time at the Convention, as time was running out in the evening. Without such prior organization it was necessary to listen to the short speeches of the candidates before voting. The slate effort, instead of saving time, ended up consuming even more time, while it was presented, debated and rejected, at the same time that many delegates were anxious to get to dinner as the evening grew late.

The value of this lost time became clear when the state party took over the podium from the Sanders sub-caucus before the votes for the Sanders delegates were even counted and the results announced. The party establishment got a black woman to announce that there was no quorum, without apparently taking or reporting an announced quorum count. She was a minor party official who had earlier broken out with the Clinton sub-caucus, and was seen serving there as a vote-counter.   She peremptorily, without any apparent authority, gaveled the Convention adjourned at 8:25 PM, before important matters had been decided. In a manner reminiscent of Nevada, the State Convention was thus adjourned by asserted authority without a motion or second, as normally required by the rules.

The convention had earlier been drawn out primarily with speeches by politicians, along with a couple pointless procedural contests. The main poison pill was contained in an Agenda item described in its entirety as “Guest Speakers – TBD (throughout day).” The Agenda was approved without objections.

Many of the guest speakers who ate up time were Clinton supporters. One Sanders delegate did object from the floor without success to the delays for party leadership speeches, which largely consisted of attacks on Donald Trump and calls for party unity. Repeated calls were made by the likes of Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken for unity to defeat Trump. This refrain was so repetitive that the Minneapolis daily paper would headline, “DFL leaders target Trump at state convention.” Trump served to divert attention from the main business of the day, which was to keep the party out of the hands of the Sanders majority.

After the state’s leading Democrats spent much of the day taking up time attacking Donald Trump, this anti-Trump obsession seemed to gradually wear thin among many delegates. It received a decreasing response until the state’s Democratic Deputy Minority Leader in the Republican House, Erin Murphy, finally made the point that was becoming obvious: if the Democrats “spend this election” just complaining about Donald Trump, then the Democrats are going to lose in November.

After the popular Minnesota Governor and Superdelegate Mark Dayton was booed when he said “I support Secretary Hillary Clinton for president” the overt Clinton endorsements were kept to a minimum. When he later said “I know that many people are supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders,” he got a raucous applause, of the kind that followed throughout the convention whenever Sanders was mentioned, or even alluded to. But that demonstration of support – which itself ate up time – was not converted into anything of much significant value to the Sanders campaign.

Superdelegate Sensibility

Sanders and his surrogates have made it clear that his surviving hopes for the nomination depend primarily, if not entirely, upon Superdelegates abandoning there soft pledges to Clinton and voting for him to make up his large deficit of pledged delegates. Sanders insists that Superdelegates can only vote at the National Convention and that prior pledges should not be operative. But mass media lies intended to suppress his final super-Tuesday primary support asserted, as Moira Liasson did on NPR the morning of the last set of primaries, that Sanders’ hope to flip the Superdelegates is “preposterous” because Clinton has a lead of “3 million votes.”

This “popular vote” rationale is a propagandistic comparison of apples and oranges, comparable to the media malpractice that unpledged Superdelegate inclinations can be “counted” by the mass media before they are voted at the National Convention on July 25.   Caucus results, which Sanders has tended to win, often by landslides as in Minnesota, cannot be compared with primaries, which have been closer, aside from being too often closed to Independent Sanders supporters — as in California, New York and elsewhere — to be indicative of general election support.

Sanders outlined a path to victory in a proposal by which landslide states like Minnesota should require their Superdelegates to vote solely for him.   In advance of the Minnesota Convention a grass roots effort, without the support of the Sanders campaign, was made for a “Bernie Petition.” The petition would presumably have changed the state party’s Rules to “demand that MN DFL ‘Super Delegates’ to the 2016 Democratic National Convention support and vote for US Senator Bernie Sanders.” But at the convention a different version was presented by prior agreement with the party leadership that was more similar to the Alaska and Maine initiatives on Superdelegates. Apparently the organizers were informed that the Rules could not be changed at the State Convention, because the deadline for submitting rules changes expired prior to the Convention. The Party leadership agreed the proposal about Superdelegates could be presented as a non-binding “sense of the Convention.” This watered down approach also took a watered down form that favored Clinton more than Sanders.

The resolution on Superdelegates that was approved by 53 percent to 46 percent, 552 to 480, contradicted Sanders’ strategy, and hurts his cause, although presented as if it were an effort to help his cause by attacking the Superdelegate problem. This Minnesota Resolution first endorsed a future “elimination or reform” of Superdelegates for the 2020 presidential election, which does nothing for Sanders. It then recorded a “request” — not even a binding party rule or a platform measure — that proportional representation be used in casting Minnesota’s Superdelegate votes in 2016. Pollster Nate Silver says proportional allocation of Superdelegates gets Sanders “Nowhere. In fact, I’d argue it would set him back.” So it does.

Absent any guidance from the campaign, Minnesota Democrats thus voted for this watered down version of a Superdelegate request that directly opposes Sanders’ strategy of having all Superdelegates from states he won in a landslide support him, while he tries to convince other Superdelegates to do their original job by ignoring their own soft pledges. Sanders want to persuade the other Superdelegates to wipe out Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates in order to support the candidate most likely to defeat Trump. According to every poll from the beginning that person is Sanders.

Conflict of Interest Recusal of Superdelegates

There is another problem with Sanders’ reliance on persuading Superdelegates to abandon their pledges to support Clinton. Sanders’ surrogates are justifying his pending capitulation to pressure to support Clinton in the general election because “Bernie’s pledged to support the Democratic nominee.” Clinton only expressed a preference for Sanders over Republicans without fashioning a reciprocal pledge. How can Sanders be bound by a “pledge” in this manner, even after the rigged election process he experienced resulted in selecting the least popular candidate who is most vulnerable to losing, and at the same time ask Superdelegates not to honor their pledges for those same reasons? Either politicians’ soft “pledges” are revocable because of changed circumstances or they are not.

Far preferable to the Minnesota Resolution calling for proportional allocation of Superdelegates, under which Sanders would lose, or Sanders’ inconsistent pledge flipping tactic, is the proposal for imposing an ethical standard on Superdelegates. Superdelegates should be subject to conflict of interest standards that would first require disclosure of any monetary or other benefits received or promised from one of the candidates, and then require recusal from voting by any Superdelegate who has a conflict of interest due to such promised or delivered benefits. Conflict of interest recusal does not require proof that an express quid pro quo transaction was made by the parties.   If it looks to a reasonable person like influence has been bought, then recusal is mandatory.

It is likely that such a rule would disqualify many of Clinton’s delegates and few if any of Sanders’ delegates. A request that the Minnesota Resolution be amended to include this requirement was declined by Resolution’s promoters. Again, advance strategic involvement by the Sanders campaign in formulating a resolution that served rather than disserved the campaign’s own strategy to turn around the Superdelegate vote could have succeeded in obtaining a useful rather than a counterproductive Resolution on this issue from Minnesota to take to the National Convention.

Unfinished Business

Because the State Convention was summarily gaveled to a halt before the agenda was complete, the Clinton leaders of the party can now continue in power through 2020. Its Central Committee which governs between conventions will appoint the electoral college electors, which unlike most years could be of conceivable importance in 2016.   Even more important they will perpetuate their own power that existed prior to Sanders landslide victory by electing state directors of the party who would otherwise be elected by the state Convention. By dragging out the proceedings the Clinton forces avoided a vote that might have helped turn the party over to Sanders’ directors.

Rob Hager is a public interest litigator who filed an amicus brief in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy and legislation.