As Democrats prepare to caucus in Minnesota, one of the hot topics is superdelegates. Some want 'em gone. Others want 'em to stay put. Some frame the issue as the "establishment" protecting itself, others frame it as an important stopgap against having what just happened to the GOP happen to the Democratic party. Surprisingly, this is the stance the uber-leftie Politico seems to take.
In 2016, a little-publicized letter from the Congressional Black Caucus also stated their unanimous support for Superdelegates. The reason is clear: Superdelegates preserve the influence of "minority" populations, influence that would be mitigated by a majority rule system. Since the African American community is the backbone of the Democratic party, their words need to be carefully read and heard.
We also need to reach out and dig deep to have these difficult discussions respectfully. So let's take a look.
Summary of the Superdelegate point/counterpoints from guest-author, Joy Nicolai.
To further the discussion, I asked a fellow activist to weigh in. She wanted me to preface this discussion with the caveat that all these issues deserve respectful deliberation. Agreed. In that spirit, I ask that you consider the points and counterpoints carefully and encourage respectful debate in your own circles. In the end, we can get so much more done if we all work together. Thank you to Joy Nicolai for writing!
Note: Opinions expressed are those of Ms. Nicolai and not representative of any group or organization.
Claim: Super Delegates overrule the will of the base electorate
In 2016, superdelegates made up approximately 15% of the voting delegation. This means that if there truly is a consensus among the electorate for a given candidate, there are not enough Super Delegates to override the will of the electorate.
Super Delegates come from party leaders, governors, congressional members, and members of the DNC. The base elects these positions or at worst, elects the people that choose appointees for these positions. While this is not direct democratic voting, it is also not the “smoky backroom dealing” that it is often portrayed as. And critics of Super Delegates never seem to ask for candidates to be selected by popular vote, which is what would be required to make the system as democratic as possible. Proportional delegate votes are less democratic than a popular vote by mathematical definition. Caucuses are less democratic than primary votes. Yet the cries of “undemocratic” come from candidates that are behind in Super Delegate count, not candidates that are behind in caucus states, or candidates that are getting screwed by mathematical rounding.
Additionally, since the Super Delegate votes are public, the base can exact consequences against Super Delegates that vote contrary to the will of the people. If for example, the base had been firmly for Sanders rather than split, and all Super Delegates voted for Clinton nonetheless, it’s likely that those Super Delegates would be voted out of positions of power. Thus, there is a built-in check to ensure that Super Delegates flagrantly defy the consensus of the electorate only in situations where it’s truly worth it.
Claim: Super Delegates are unfair, and allow for rigging
The rules for DNC Super Delegates have been in force since 1984. They are not secret. All campaigns have access to information on Super Delegates. Rigging implies that Super Delegates are a shadowy cabal that only one candidate has knowledge of.
Running for President should not necessarily be easy. Nor should obtaining the Democratic endorsement. Convincing party leadership that you would be a strong candidate for office, and that you would be a boon rather than a drag on down ballot races seems a reasonable requirement to me. Note that whether or not a candidate is actually strong and how they actually impact down ballot races is an entirely different issue that cannot truly be determined by the base or the party leaders ahead of time. No one has a crystal ball.
Rigging implies cheating. The system is operated with clear rules known to anyone that cares to actually learn them. It favors candidates that are willing to put in the work and spend years of their life preparing for them. The process is conducted in full view of the public and with a public record preserved for review. This is the exact opposite of cheating. Not liking something is not the same as it being unfair or rigged.
Reasons I support having Super Delegates:
Super Delegates are not bound to their vote until the convention. History tells us that Super Delegates move toward the candidate with the most pledged delegate votes as we get nearer to the convention, even if that’s not the candidate they originally supported. See the primary for the 2008 election as an example. A majority of Super Delegates originally supported Hillary, and they switched to Obama as he began picking up the lead in pledged delegate votes.
Super Delegates can play a role in preventing populist candidate that is otherwise unqualified, dangerous, and a violation of party norms from becoming the nominee, especially in a large field of candidates. If the GOP had un-pledged Super Delegates, Trump may well not be the president. While I’m sure that I would not be a supporter of the policies of a President Rubio, Bush, or Cruz, I don’t think any of them would be as dangerous to the entire world as Trump. This scenario is not at all far-fetched on the left. See Oprah – she has amazing name recognition and charisma. Like her or not, she has no foreign policy experience, no experience running or participating in government, and little understand of how the DNC works as it pertains to down ballot races. She’s obviously smarter and more humane than Trump (not a high bar to clear) but that doesn’t make her qualified. If many qualified candidates run, without Super Delegates she could win the nomination with a plurality of votes rather than a majority. Is Dr. Oz going to run the FDA? Will the guy with the highest book sales be the Secretary of Education?...This is an avowed white supremacist running for the MT House as a Democrat. Now, imagine the same guy runs for President as a Democrat. If we have no requirement that you are a Democrat to run for the DNC nomination, we have no requirement that those that vote for you in the nominating process are Democrats, and we have no Super Delegates, there is nothing that would stop Trump's base and others from storming the process and voting this guy into being the Democratic nominee.
Super Delegates are a check on absolute majority rule. As a member of several minority groups, I am wary of any situation governed by absolute majority rule. I think it’s true that Super Delegates serve to moderate the party away from extremes. For many policies, that is a(n arguable) shame. Maybe we would have had single payer in our platform earlier, and that would be good. But maybe we also would have pulled so far to the left that we would resemble the Green Party. I was a Green once and I’m aware that option exists. I left the Green Party when I witnessed at their State Convention, the very democratic process of pandering to the majority by trying to out-progressive one another. That’s how the Green Party, in MN, ended up with a Senate candidate that pledged to “make half the Senate woman” but couldn’t address any policy questions with a substantive answer. I wish there were more women in Congress, but I’d rather have Keith Ellison than Michelle Bachman any day of the week. We might all be comfortable with what the extremity of our party supports today, but parties evolve and the fringes tend to radicalize. The GOP of 1980 didn’t look like the GOP of 2016.
One thing is certain, this system has been in place for a long time. It sounds democratic and radical to throw out the old and usher in the the new, but let's not forget that was Trump's platform as well. "Anti-establishmentism" plays well in every election, it's a tried and true theme.
Let's make sure we are not disenfranchising people that the superdelegates serve to amplify. Let's also think carefully about the fact that many GOP members despised Trump, but the GOP had no superdelegate system in place to protect it. Is theirs a cautionary example we should pay attention to?
No answers here, but food for your careful thought.