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The Democratic Party’s latest reform commission just met. It’s likely to slash the power of superdelegates.

- December 12, 2017

On Friday and Saturday, the Democratic Party’s Unity Reform Commission (URC) held its final meeting in Washington. The commission was created to re-examine the Democrats’ presidential nominating process after the party’s 2016 national convention.

For the past six months, most of the commission’s rather technical deliberations passed under the radar. But this won’t: The commission is likely to recommend rule changes that, if adopted by the Democratic National Committee, would affect its 2020 presidential primary.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Unity Reform Commission (and what are superdelegates)?

The commission was created to heal the rifts between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Among the controversies it reviewed was the role of the party’s “superdelegates.”

In the past, superdelegates voted at the convention without being bound by any state’s primary or caucus. They have been free to support the candidate they prefer. In 2016, the Democrats’ superdelegates included all Democratic National Committee members, national Democratic officeholders, governors and a handful of “distinguished party leaders,” such as former presidents, vice presidents and DNC chairs. This group made up about 15 percent of the national convention, or 712 out of 4,763 delegates.

Superdelegates became especially controversial last year because they appeared to give Clinton an advantage early in the nomination process. Superdelegates overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton, bringing her delegate tally significantly higher than what she brought in through state primary victories. Sanders and his supporters criticized that as unfair.

In reality, superdelegates did not clinch the nomination for Clinton. Nonetheless, to placate the Sanders wing of the party, the National Convention created the commission to re-examine superdelegates and other issues. 

Are commissions like the URC a new thing?

Not at all. The URC is only the latest iteration of a long-running Democratic concern (some might call it an obsession) with creating a fair nominating process. Since the mid-1960s, the party has sponsored a series of reform commissions.

The most significant was the McGovern-Fraser Commission — named for its two chairmen, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Rep. Donald Fraser (D-Minn.) — which was created after the ugly and violence-plagued 1968 national convention. At that time, party leaders controlled the convention delegates and brokered the nomination in the convention hall’s proverbial smoke-filled rooms. The commission’s recommendations were detailed and complex. What matters here is that, afterward, the Democratic Party assigned delegates based on who won the state caucuses and primaries. Party officials and officeholders were no longer automatically delegates.

However, the Democratic Party’s nominees lost decisively in both the 1972 and 1980 elections. Some party leaders believed that the institutional party needed to become more involved in selecting and vetting candidates.

And so before the 1984 election, the Democratic Party’s Hunt Commission created a new class of convention participants: superdelegates. While these major party players no longer had the ability to command a block of delegates and tell them how to vote, Democratic officeholders once again were automatic and unpledged delegates who could, in theory, vote for any candidate — no matter who won the primaries.

What has the URC decided?

Although nothing has been finalized, observers expect the URC to recommend reforming the party’s superdelegate rules. Increasingly, influential party members appear to agree that these rules do need to change, including such heavyweights as Clinton’s running mate, Tim KaineDNC chair Tom Perez; and deputy chair Keith Ellison.

What’s more, as political scientist Josh Putnam has argued, the commission’s mandate more or less instructed it to leave Democratic members of Congress, governors and distinguished party leaders as unpledged delegates — but to require DNC members to cast their convention votes “in proportion to the vote received for each candidate in their state.”

And so that’s what the commission is expected to do. If it does, all DNC members, party officeholders and leaders would still automatically have the right to attend the national convention as voting delegates. But more than half of this group — DNC members — would have to cast their votes for the presidential nominee of their state’s choosing rather than being free to support the candidate of their own choice.

Reducing unpledged superdelegates by about 60 percent would make them less influential in future presidential nominating contests. While the results of this reform commission will be less earthshaking than McGovern-Fraser, the new rules could end up prolonging the 2020 nominating contest. The difficulty for a front-runner to emerge may be a source of consternation for party elites. But many in the Sanders camp would probably consider this a fairer process.

Adam Hilton is a visiting lecturer in the Politics Department at Mount Holyoke College.