Democrats took another step on Wednesday toward reducing the influence of “superdelegates” in their presidential nomination process, but the party still has one last hill to overcome: convincing fellow Democrats.
The Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee, the body charged with changing the process, voted Wednesday to strip superdelegates of the ability to vote on the first ballot for president at the party’s convention unless a candidate earned enough pledged delegates to make up the majority of the entire delegation. That change, which diminishes the role of superdelegates in selecting the nominee in the event of a contested convention, will now be sent to the full DNC for a vote next month, which officially sets up the nomination process for the 2020 election.
A majority of members are required to approve it, which some on the rules committee recognize will take a bit of work to secure.
“There certainly are some vehement opinions opposed to this, but we know there are very strong opinions in support of this as well,” said committee Chairman James Roosevelt. “I think it’s a question of clearly explaining to people why this is being done, how this decision was arrived at, and then try to be clear about why we are proposing something that we think is a reform that moves the party to unity and ultimately to winning in November.”
Superdelegates – automatic unpledged delegates who include elected officials, party leaders and former Democratic presidents - made up about 15% of the Democratic convention in 2016. Rules committee members are quick to point out that they have never changed the outcome of a convention since they first voted during the 1984 convention.
Some members, like former DNC Chairman Don Fowler, who was with the party when superdelegates were created in the early 1980s, oppose the change, saying it’s voter disenfranchisement.
“We’re creating a circumstance where automatic delegates will be second-class delegates,” he said during the committee’s meeting.
The change comes in response to the 2016 nomination process, in which Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of tipping the scales with the early support of superdelegates she had before voting began.
Sanders released a statement last month supporting the proposed change, which many Clinton backers agree with as well.
“I think the party is being responsive to the grass roots. I think that’s a positive thing,” Sanders’$2 2016 campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told CNN after the meeting. “We’ve got a ways to go – obviously the full DNC has to approve the changes that were approved here – but I think everybody here is committed to the reforms that were passed and I look forward to a positive result in August.”
Fowler argued the changes need to be made to the DNC charter, which would require a two-thirds majority to approve next month, instead of a simple majority for alterations to the “call,” or ground rules, for the convention.
The DNC’s counsel, Graham Wilson, disagreed with Fowler’s legal assessment, along with a majority of the rules committee who voted to recommend their proposal as a change to the call.
Members also recognized to CNN that a charter change may not pass a DNC vote, though they do feel confident about any changes that necessitate a simple majority.
The question facing Democrats opposed to the new superdelegate role is whether to fight it ahead of the August meeting.
Fowler wouldn’t tip his hand, telling CNN, “I don’t know exactly what will happen yet – this is an open book.”
Other DNC members who disagree with the rule change, like committee member Harold Ickes, said he would not fight it. A spokesman for Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who was on the Hunt Commission, which created superdelegates, told CNN he would not actively campaign against it.
The committee also voted on language Wednesday that would allow superdelegates to run for pledged delegate slots to ensure their votes on the first ballot. Older members of the DNC point out that the reason superdelegates were created was to avoid that scenario.
William Owen, a longtime DNC member, opposes the changes, saying the rules committee should have adopted the Unity Reform Commission recommendations, which would have made superdelegates pledged on the first ballot.
Owen has been circulating a letter to DNC members in a campaign against the rule change, asking them to join him in “opposing this proposal and in voting down this undemocratic change to the crucial process of electing our next presidential nominee.”
Though he’ll ultimately abide by the DNC’s decision next month, he pointed out the irony that the vote will take place in Chicago, the site of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.
“Hopefully we’re not going to have that again,” he said.