Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the Democratic town hall broadcast live from South Carolina with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tonight on CNN at 8 p.m. ET.
Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Sally Kohn: In 1982, the Democratic Party adopted superdelegates, who today control 15% of the final nomination process
Democratic Party superdelegates exist to preserve the power and influence of the Democratic Party's elite, says Kohn
The GOP also has superdelegates, but they vote in line with primary results, and Dem superdelegates don't have to, she says
You might think, from their title, that superdelegates are better than regular delegates.
Actually, they’re worse.
The process for presidential elections in the United States is governed by the Constitution. Primary elections, however, are not. They are controlled by the political parties themselves. In fact, until the 1820s, members of Congress chose the presidential nominee for each party. That elitist system started to buckle with the advent of national conventions, though delegates were still selected through state and local convention processes controlled by the parties.
It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that parties embraced primary elections as part of the process for deciding on presidential candidates. But to ensure that the voters themselves didn’t have all the power, in 1982 the Democratic Party adopted what are called superdelegates, who today control 15% of the final nomination process.
The Republican Party has superdelegates, too, but they have a lot less power. GOP superdelegates are only about 7% of the nominating vote, and according to Republican convention rules, superdelegates must vote in accordance with their state primary outcomes.
It’s in the Democratic Party that the outsized power and lack of accountability of superdelegates is supremely, well, undemocratic.
Specifically, after the Democratic caucuses in Nevada, CNN estimated that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were almost tied for pledged delegates, with 52 and 51 of them, respectively. And yet Clinton was leading by a much wider margin in the total delegate count because a whopping 445 superdelegates – out of a total of 712 – pledged to support her. By comparison, just 18 superdelegates pledged to support Sanders.
In other words, while Clinton and Sanders were almost perfectly split in the tally of voter-determined delegates, superdelegates threw their weight behind Clinton by an almost 25-to-1 ratio.
Any liberal who has ever been at a protest march for social justice has heard the popular chant: “This is what democracy looks like!” Well, superdelegates are definitely not what democracy looks like. Anything but.
So here’s where it gets really interesting: In the 2008 Democratic primary, by at least some measures, more people actually voted for Clinton than for Barack Obama. But because of the way pledged delegates are counted and because Obama’s team led an effort early on to lock down superdelegates, the math ultimately favored Obama, and Clinton dropped out. Clinton, in turn, learned not to dismantle the superdelegate system but to better play it, hiring the architect of Obama’s superdelegate strategy to marshal hers this time around. And so fans of Sanders – as well as, presumably, fans of democratic participation in general – have launched efforts to call on superdelegates to reflect the will of the voters they represent and promise to support whichever candidate their state voters back. One such petition by MoveOn.org, has over 179,000 signatures. Another similar petition has almost 200,000 signatures.
Not so fast, says the Democratic Party. The uproar about superdelegates started after the New Hampshire primary. Sanders won 60% of the vote and, therefore, 15 of the state’s pledged delegates. Clinton won just nine delegates. But nonetheless, Sanders and Clinton remained tied vis-a-vis New Hampshire delegates because six of the state’s eight superdelegates backed Clinton.
CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz why the Democratic Party would embrace such a plainly undemocratic process. Here’s what she said:
“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.”
In other words, the Democratic Party’s superdelegates exist to preserve the power and influence of the Democratic Party’s elite. Well that makes perfect sense – if you’re, say, the inherently elitist, pro-big business, rich Republican Party. But not if you’re supposed to be the party that protects the interests of regular Americans.
And sure, there’s an argument to be made that both parties should have a fail-safe way to prevent the sort of cataclysmic disaster of the kind Donald Trump is creating by becoming the GOP nominee. But democracy is democracy, folks. We’re supposed to stand by the process even if we don’t like the outcome.
According to a new poll, nearly one in three Trump supporters in South Carolina supports banning gay people from entering the United States. That’s horrifying. But the Republican Party has to reckon with those voters – and the way in which Republican policies and rhetoric over the last several decades have given succor and solace to those views. Sweeping them under the rug via a superdelegate trouncing would be convenient but wrong.
Most of us know the quotes about democracy being messy or imperfect or the worst form of government except for all the others. Here’s another quote: “Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy.” That one comes from Mussolini, who was a fascist, and, perhaps if he were alive today, would be a superdelegate.