Monday, March 12, 2018

Superdelegates and the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee: A Different Perspective After the Winter Meeting

The Democratic National Committee is coming off its 2018 winter meeting, a meeting that culminated with the acceptance of an interim report on the 2020 rules. That report followed continued discussions by the Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) in conjunction with the winter meeting and a previous preparatory RBC meeting just a week before. FHQ tuned in to both rounds of RBC discussions and continues to be struck by the framing of the rules discussions in media accounts. By far the most dominant lens through which those rules discussions are being viewed is the lingering Clinton-Sanders tensions in the broader party coalition.

And it is not that those depictions are wrong. Rather, it is that they are overly simplistic and have missed some important developments along the way that run against that frame. This phenomenon is at its most stark with respect to the party's efforts on superdelegates, the unpledged elected officials and party leaders that have periodically been controversial in Democratic presidential nomination politics.

On the surface, there is a group that wants to see superdelegates go and an opposing group that wants to maintain the status quo. And there also exists the aforementioned Clinton-Sanders divide left over from the 2016 race. These two cleavages in the party are often treated as reinforcing in the context of these 2020 rules discussions. And that is an easy conclusion at which to arrive: the Clinton/establishment faction wants to keep the current superdelegate system intact while the Sanders group would like to see them go.

However, there is growing evidence that that is just not the case; that those two divides do not buttress each other nearly so completely as is often described. For starters, for all of the chatter about the purge of loosely Sanders-aligned members of the RBC by DNC chair, Tom Perez, during and after the 2017 DNC fall meeting in Las Vegas, the committee has not exactly moved against the interests of the Sanders faction in the context of the 2020 rules discussions. The fear within that faction at the time and since was and has been that the RBC would ignore or dilute the recommendations of the Unity Reform Commission.

On the matter of superdelegates, neither has been the case. In fact, the RBC interim report to the DNC stated that the committee "agrees [with the Unity Reform Commission] that the Party must revise the role and reduce the perceived influence that automatic unpledged delegates have in the presidential nominating process." Furthermore, David McDonald, RBC member from Washington, summed up the committee work to this point quite well in observing that there is consensus on the RBC to make a change -- revise and reduce -- but not on the nature of the influence superdelegates have on the nomination process. In other words, at the very least, there is a perception problem with the current superdelegate system. That, too, was voiced by other members of the committee during the RBC session on superdelegates at the winter meeting.

Rather than a keep superdelegates/get rid of superdelegates divide, then, there is within the RBC a perception problem surrounding superdelegates. And that is less about stay or go or Clinton-Sanders and more about how to reduce the perceived role of those unpledged delegates in the Democratic nomination process.

That "how" question, and particularly the options that have been developed to address that how, cross-cut both of the other cleavages as well. Working from the Unity Reform Commission recommendations, the RBC hit something of a wall. This is something that has been missed in nearly all of the accounts of the two early March RBC meetings. Neither the pooled vote option nor the alternate vote option recommended by the Unity Reform Commission have been viewed by the RBC as wholly acceptable answers to the superdelegate problem.

The alternate vote option drew fire from state party chairs on the RBC for overly complicating the roles of both them and their parties in administering the delegate selection process. Another issue that arose from the discussion of the alternate vote option was the potential for forcing abstentions from superdelegates bound to candidates they do not support.

And the pooled vote option, while perhaps a more elegant option, saw pushback from members of the RBC over its automatic transmission of superdelegate votes to the state tally sheet, removing the need for an actual human to fill the delegate slot. As RBC member Elaine Kamarck remarked, if the party moves in that direction "why even have a convention at all."

Together, those criticisms moved the discussion in a different direction: eliminate the superdelegate votes on the first ballot for the presidential nomination. Elimination is a simpler solution relative to the intricacies of the alternate vote option. Additionally, it is, perhaps, a logical if not justifiable (to some) step beyond the pooled vote option. Eliminating superdelegate votes on the first ballot circumvents the non-voting problem for some but not all superdelegates by applying it to all superdelegates on a vote -- the first ballot -- that has settled every Democratic nomination since 1952.

Now, there are arguments on the merits against the elimination option, but FHQ will save that for a separate post. Suffice it to say, however, there are three main options that are before the RBC that can be roughly arranged from complicated (alternate vote option) to easy to explain. The need for the latter was made apparent during a nearly hourlong back and forth around the three ideas at the winter meeting RBC gathering. There is some desire within the group to not only devise a set of rules to address the superdelegate perception problem, but one that is easy to describe/more easily understood by the rank-and-file of the party.

And that is a different discussion than Clinton-Sanders. It involves that divide; it is influenced by it. But it is not the same cleavage. As this process moves forward, it might be best to bear that in mind. There are really three main cleavages to consider:

    1) Clinton-Sanders (internal v. external):
Yes, the Clinton-Sanders divide remains a part of this discussion, but it is more a function of external pressure -- outside of the RBC1 -- weighing on the decisions of the group.

    2) perception problem/status quo (balancing process v. legitimacy):
It is evident the RBC sees a perception problem and is seeking to deal with that. And it should be noted that past iterations of the group have dealt with similar assaults on the superdelegate system. There was a more robust defense of the system following its maiden voyage in 1984 that, nonetheless, led to alterations thereafter. And after the close 2008 nomination race, the committee also moved to revise the role of superdelegates.2 But the same perception problem existed throughout, bringing, at its worst, the legitimacy of their inclusion and the process into question. The RBC has been sensitive to those questions in its past tinkering. Yet, that superdelegates can but have not overturned the will of the primary/caucus voters through the era of their inclusion fuels the discontent with them even further. The RBC, then, seems willing to test the system with fewer unpledged delegates in 2020 than at any time since before 1984. That seems to be the consensus on the RBC and does not necessarily match the divide described in #1 above; not exactly in any event

    3) options: eliminate on first vote, pooled vote, alternative vote (easy to complicated):
Finally, it is worth drilling down and focusing on the options the committee is considering. That way lies the functioning lines of demarcation on the RBC. This, too, overlaps some with both #1 and #2 above, but again, not perfectly. The bottom line here is over whether the answer to a complex problem can or should be parsimonious or demand further complex rules-making.

As the RBC, and ultimately the DNC, continue to work toward a resolution on superdelegate and other rules for the 2020 process, the above frames all should be considered and combine to give us a better picture of what is going on than repeatedly dipping back into the Clinton-Sanders well of explanations.

1 This is outside the RBC in terms of outside groups but also members of the DNC (those not on the RBC) who nonetheless want to see a curbing of if not end to the superdelegate role.

2 Add-on superdelegates were moved from unpledged to pledged and the total base number of delegates was raised from 3000 to 3700, reducing the percentage of superdelegates in the process.

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