Democrats voted Saturday to drastically scale back the controversial superdelegate system that gives elected officials and party insiders an outsize say in the party’s presidential nominating process, delivering a significant victory for Bernie Sanders and his supporters ahead of 2020.
The vote, held at the Democratic National Committee’s annual summer meeting here in Chicago, brings a laborious two-year process to its conclusion, with party members agreeing on a set of sweeping changes to superdelegates, caucuses, primaries, and other rules.
Under the new system for choosing a Democratic nominee, in the first round of voting at the national convention, superdelegates will no longer be entitled to their own delegate to award to the candidate of their choosing. Around 700 people had superdelegate status in 2016. In the case of a contested convention and second round of voting — a historically unlikely possibility — superdelegates would again be allowed to cast a delegate vote.
Superdelegates make up about 30% of the 2,382 delegates needed to clinch the party’s nomination. They include 450 DNC members, Democratic elected officials, and “distinguished” party leaders like former presidents and vice presidents. Superdelegates were a major point of contention during the 2016 primary — with Sanders supporters arguing that the system unfairly favored Hillary Clinton.
Second to the superdelegate measure, the biggest change made on Saturday was a set of measures to make caucuses more fair and transparent: States that hold caucuses over primaries will be asked to offer same-day registration, publicly report the results of caucus voting, create a mechanism for absentee voting, and ensure that every caucus site is accessible to people with disabilities and English-language limitations.
Led by chairman Tom Perez and a 12-person whip operation, DNC members backing the proposed changes worked through the four-day meeting here to ensure a wide margin of support. For Perez, a party chair who’s stirred some unrest among DNC members since he entered the role early last year, Saturday’s meeting came as something of a personal victory. A DNC official noted that he spent more than 100 hours making calls and taking meetings with party members to lock in their vote.
There was some opposition in Chicago to the changes. Not every DNC member — all of whom are superdelegates themselves — was eager to give up power in the nominating process. Others made the argument that women, people of color, and LGBT members of the party would be stripped of representation.
About a dozen or so Democrats met in the basement of the Hyatt Regency to discuss their problems with the proposals. On the door, a handmade sign encouraged Democrats to “RESIST,” showing the letters “RBC,” in reference to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, circled and crossed out.
At Saturday’s meeting, former DNC chair Don Fowler argued that eliminating superdelegates would in particular “disenfranchise” some 200 black superdelegates, 100 Latino superdelegates, and dozens of LGBT superdelegates. From the back of the room, members of the audience responded by yelling, “Lies!”
DNC vice chair Karen Carter Peterson, along with other DNC members of color, also made a strong appeal against the changes. “Are you telling me that I’m going to go to a convention — after my 30 years of blood, sweat and tears for this party — that you’re going to take away my right?”
Among those supporting the changes were both Sanders and Clinton allies, who wore “Vote Yes To Our Future” lapel stickers throughout this week’s meeting.
More than two years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the two rivals established the Unity Reform Commission — a 21-person group mandated to review the party’s nominating process, scale back superdelegates, make caucuses more accessible, and encourage the use of primaries over caucuses when possible. The commission met eight times before kicking the process to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee — which then spent more than 80 hours in its own meetings.
Before Saturday’s vote, Howard Dean, a former DNC chair and governor of Vermont, encouraged members to vote yes to the changes, telling Democrats that as long as superdelegates held a delegate vote in the nominating process, young voters would not trust in the party or a fair primary process.
“Make no mistake: This is a perception that’s cost us at the ballot box,” he said in a taped video that played just before the vote.
Perez, the current DNC chair, followed closely behind. “It’s time to make history,” he said. “It’s time to make a clear statement to people who share our values that we trust you.”
“That’s what this package of reforms will do.”
The four-hour process concluded with a voice vote after Fowler, one of the strongest opponents of the proposals, conceded the fight, moving to waive the requirement for recorded paper votes.