There are two prominent features of the Democratic Party’s presidential selection process that are thoroughly undemocratic and undermine faith in the party: superdelegates (which favor Hillary Clinton) and caucuses (which favor Bernie Sanders).
As The New York Times editorial board explained: “Superdelegates are party bigwigs — 712 Democratic leaders, legislators, governors and the like. They can vote for any candidate at the nominating convention, regardless of whether that candidate won the popular vote. These unpledged delegates make up 30 percent of the 2,382 delegates whose votes are needed to win the nomination, and could thus make all the difference.”
Let’s start there. Superdelegates, whose votes are not bound by the millions of individual voters, make up nearly a third of all delegates. That, on its face, is outrageous.
It’s no surprise that superdelegates were created by establishment elites to increases their own power. Superdelegates were invented by a Democratic rule change in the early 1980s after the nomination of George McGovern in 1972 and the devastating loss of Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan in 1980, precisely to help the establishment prevent the nomination of insurgent candidates of whom the establishment disapproved. (Sanders is nothing if not an insurgent candidate.)
As The New York Times reported in 1981: “Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, who heads the latest Democratic rule-changing group, an unwieldy, 29-member agglomeration of the innocent and the experienced, describes its task as one of writing ‘rules that will help us choose a nominee who can win and who, having won, can govern effectively.’ ” The article continued: “Much of this year’s deliberations have seemed infused with a desire to deny future nominations to political reincarnations of the Jimmy Carter of 1976.”
So today we have an establishment structure that equates a single establishment vote with thousands of citizen votes. As Tom Foreman wrote for CNN.com in 2008: “A few decades ago, Democratic leaders felt that sometimes, Democratic voters were choosing poor presidential candidates: campaigners who couldn’t win elections, or even if they could, they didn’t please Democratic kingmakers.”
This system is unjust, in part because those superdelegates are not prohibited from declaring their loyalty before voting has ended. At the very least, they should be barred from committing before voting is completed in their own states. Without this prohibition, the establishment puts its thumb on the scale and signals its approval and disapproval ahead of Democratic voters. How can this be defended?
This cycle, nearly three months before a single vote was cast, The Associated Press found that at least half of all those superdelegates (359) had already committed to supporting Clinton. Only eight had committed to supporting Sanders. Clinton’s popularity among superdelegates has only continued to rise. This is not to say that superdelegates can’t switch allegiances, but the initial, premature declarations are the real problem.
Then, there are the caucuses. As Zachary Roth wrote for MSNBC ahead of the Iowa caucuses: “The tightly limited hours are perhaps the most glaring problem — especially at a time when Democrats are emphasizing the importance of expanding access to voting, and are responding to the needs of working people.”
This says nothing of the burden caucuses put on families without child care, students and senior citizens.
It’s the height of irony that the caucuses have favored Sanders, the candidate promising to decrease income inequality and fight for higher wages. So far, the Democrats have held 21 primaries, including Democrats abroad, and 14 caucuses in the states and the territories. Clinton won 16 primaries but just four caucuses, while Sanders won 10 caucuses but just five primaries. For context, Democrats will have a total of 19 caucuses in the states and the territories, while the Republicans have only 13. (North Dakota doesn’t hold a caucus or a primary, while Colorado and Wyoming hold only informal caucuses, where constituents vote for delegates, not candidates.)
Furthermore, caucuses dispense with the privacy and anonymity of the voting booth and have the potential to inject an element of peer pressure into the democratic process. People should be free to vote with their conscience — and in private! — and feel no pressure whatsoever to bend to the consensus of the community.
The Boston Globe editorial page argued for the elimination of caucuses last month, saying: “In a caucus, voters who aren’t physically able to sit in a school gymnasium and debate the merits of their candidate with their neighbors get shut out. And obscure rules that vary from state to state governing delegate allotment and proxy balloting make for confusing inconsistencies when tallying results.”
For a Democratic Party that prides itself on the grand ideals of inclusion and fairness, the nominating process is anything but.
Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.