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The DNC’s Superdelegate Problem

In the 2016 Democratic Primaries, super delegates were a highly contested issue within the party. Former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said in a February 2016 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.” This sentiment is in line with what DNC Attorneys argued in a federal court earlier this year that the Democratic Party is well within their rights to “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.”

The Democratic Party created the super delegate system in the 1980’s to provide leverage in primaries to elected Democratic Party officials, former officials, or appointed DNC members, at least 60 of whom serve as corporate lobbyists. In 2020, the same issues that arose in the party’s most recent primary and served as proof of the Democratic Party leadership subverting democracy to achieve their own goals are likely to resurface unless the Democratic Party leadership changes course and rescinds the role of super delegates before the next Democratic Presidential Nominee is selected. In 2009, a DNC Commission proposed several changes to the super delegate system, but those changes were never implemented, and it backfired in 2016. Democrats can’t afford to make the same mistake again in disenfranchising millions of voters to protect the voices of party elites.

Before a single vote was cast in the 2016 primaries, over half of the party’s super delegates formally supported Clinton. Their votes were included in several mainstream media reports on the overall primary election tallies, framing the narrative that Bernie Sanders was much further behind than he actually was. With every super delegate endorsement came with it free advertising and media coverage in support of Clinton. In states that Bernie Sanders won, the delegate count often went in Clinton’s favor because of super delegates. That barrier of roughly 15 percent of the delegates in each state was put in place to ensure candidates like Hillary Clinton could fend off challengers. Had Clinton not won in pledged delegates during the primaries, super delegates were Clinton’s safeguard to secure her the nomination. If Republicans had a similar system in place, Jeb Bush would likely have wound up the party’s nominee.

After the end of the 2016 Primaries, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a former DNC Vice Chair, pushed a petition for the party to end super delegates. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said in June 2016, “I don’t believe in super delegates.” Even Clinton Supporter, former Campaign Manager for Howard Dean, Joe Trippi wrote an op-ed on why the party should abolish super delegates in July 2016. Despite the calls for reform, they were voted down at the Democratic National Convention, and after the presidential election, the super delegates issue was deferred to the DNC Unity Reform Commission. That commission includes super delegates and party insiders selected by Hillary Clinton and DNC Chair Tom Perez, in addition to the selections Bernie Sanders was allowed to make.

If the DNC Unity Commission that is currently ongoing somehow comes to a consensus on abolishing or scaling back super delegates, the entire DNC and DNC Rules Committee would have to approve them as well. Its unlikely the rule that directly benefits party insiders and establishment Democrats who hold these positions will reform a system that exists to discourage grassroots activism within the party’s nomination process. But in 2020, if the Democratic Party’s super delegates boost the party’s preferred candidate with a swarm of super delegate support, they once again risk disenfranchising and alienating thousands of voters away from the party.

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Michael Sainato’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, Buffalo News, the Hill, Alternet, and several other publications . Follow him on twitter: @MSainat1

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