[AllPolitics - DNC '96 Facts]

Democratic Rules

Some highlights of recent Democratic convention rules disputes

Although it did not have a formal set of rules before 1972, the Democratic Party operated with two controversial rules from its earliest conventions. The UNIT RULE enabled the majority of a delegation to cast the entire vote of the delegation for one candidate or position. The unit rule was abolished by the 1968 convention. The TWO-THIRDS NOMINATING RULE mandated candidates for president and vice president were required to win a two-thirds majority vote (as opposed to a simple majority). The two-thirds nominating rule was abolished in 1936 because the rule produced seven multi-ballot conventions between the years of 1832 and 1932.

Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was an unmitigated disaster as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. But he had a lasting impact on the party through his work as first chairman of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. Because of the McGovern committee's work, it is no longer possible for small groups of state party officials to handpick convention delegates, tell them whom to vote for and, in effect, choose the party nominee without consulting the voters. (Hubert Humphrey was the last such candidate -- he received the 1968 nomination despite having won NO primaries or caucuses.)

Beginning with reforms proposed by the McGovern panel, the Democratic party "democratized" the presidential selection process through a succession of commissions between 1968 and 1992. This series of changes succeeded in 1) crafting rules to guarantee better representation for women, young people and minorities; 2) secured PROPORTIONAL ALLOCATION of delegates, based on state primary or caucus results (eliminating winner-take-all allocation of delegates); and 3) gave convention votes to party leaders and elected officials (they are nicknamed SUPERDELEGATES and are allowed to remain uncommitted until the convention).

Year-by-year review of notable Democratic rules disputes/changes

  • 1968-72 Rules: A commission headed by Sen. George McGovern produced a set of guidelines in 1972 requiring delegates to "fairly reflect" their state's preferences among presidential candidates. In addition, the makeup of each delegation had to be "in reasonable relationship" to the proportion of minority groups, women and young people in its home state. No more than 10% of a delegation could be named by a state's Democratic Committee. Rules requiring the "timely selection" of delegates, publicizing meetings at which delegates were chosen and public notification of a delegate's candidate preference were enacted.

    As a result of the changes, there were challenges filed against more than 40% of the delegates selected for the convention. Perhaps the most notorious battle involved the revocation of the credentials of 58 Illinois delegates led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the awarding of their seats to an alternate delegation led by Jesse Jackson. (Sources: The National Journal, August 23, 1980; St. Petersburg Times, July 17, 1988; Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections.)

  • 1976 Rules: A commission headed by Rep. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland replaced the demographic quotas of 1972 with affirmative action requirements to increase participation by women, blacks and other minorities. (However, this specific plan had the OPPOSITE effect, decreasing the proportion of women from 38% in 1972 to 36% in 1976. The proportion of blacks declined from 15% in 1972 to 7% in 1976. After 1976, quotas for women delegates were reimposed.) PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION, the distribution of delegates among candidates to reflect their share of the primary or caucus vote, was mandated by party rules. (Sources: The National Journal, August 23, 1980; Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections.)

  • 1980 Rules: A floor vote resulted in passage of a party rule binding delegates to vote on the first ballot for the candidate they originally were elected to support. (This was a defeat for Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was hoping to convince Carter delegates to abandon the president on the first ballot.) As a result of recommendations by a commission under the chairmanship of Michigan party chairman Morley Winograd, the Democrats abolished LOOPHOLE PRIMARIES -- where winner-take-all balloting still had been allowed at the congressional district level. Beginning with the 1980 convention, the Democrats took steps to increase attendance by state party officials and elected party leaders -- governors, senators and members of Congress. (Although such officials' convention attendance had been declining since the 1956 convention, their numbers had dropped precipitously after the 1972 convention.) States were urged to assign at-large seats to party leaders and elected officials. (Source: The National Journal, August 23, 1980)

  • 1984 Rules: In 1982, the DNC adopted several changes in the nominating process. They had been proposed by the party's Commission on Presidential Nominations, which was established in 1980 and led by Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina. The party created a new group of "SUPERDELEGATES," party and elected officials who would go to the 1984 convention "uncommitted" and cast about 14% of the ballots. (This was a continuation of the effort to bring the experienced, more MODERATE members of the party to the convention to act as a "ballast" against the passions of other delegates.)

    In 1984, this had the effect of stabilizing support for "establishment" candidate Walter Mondale over "insurgent" candidates Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. Also adopted was a proposal allowing a presidential candidate to replace a disloyal delegate. Another revision was a decision to allow states to choose to keep a proportional representation system AND allow them to adopt a winner bonus plan that awarded the top vote-getter in each district one extra delegate.

    Also in 1984, the DNC retained the three-month delegate selection "window" stretching from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in June. But to reduce the growing influence of early states in the nominating process, the Democrats required Iowa and New Hampshire to move their publicized events to late winter. Although these states retained their privileged status of "going first," party rules mandated their initial nominating rounds be held only eight days apart in 1984. (There were five weeks between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in 1980.) The DNC also set candidate filing deadlines of 30-90 days before the election and limited participation in the delegate selection process to Democrats only.

  • 1988: Only slightly modified from 1984 process. The number of "uncommitted" party and elected officials (SUPERDELEGATES) was expanded and rearranged to reserve more convention seats for members of Congress, governors and the DNC. Rules restricting participants in Democratic primaries and caucuses were relaxed so open primaries in Wisconsin and Montana would be conducted with approval of national party. Finally, the threshold (or share of the vote a candidate must win in a primary or caucus to qualify for delegates) was lowered from 20% to 15%.

  • 1992 Rules: In 1990, the DNC made two changes that affected 1992 process. The presidential primary season was moved forward by one week, from the second Tuesday in March to the first. The second change banned winner-reward systems, which gave extra delegates to the winner of a primary or caucus. All states were required to divide their publicly elected delegates proportionally among candidates who drew at least 15% of the primary/caucus vote. The number of super delegates also was expanded.

    (SOURCE: Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections pp. 16-23 unless otherwise noted.)

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