Opinion: New rules best for superdelegates

The Democratic Party added superdelegates to its national conventions beginning in 1984. Superdelegates are elected and party officials who are part of state delegations to the conventions but are not pledged to a particular presidential candidate.
Superdelegates were intended to provide a dose of political realism to counteract what some Democratic leaders saw as the tendency of delegates elected by the party grassroots to support unsuccessful presidential candidates and presidents, such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter.
Most Democratic delegates are elected as a result of primaries and caucuses and are allocated to presidential candidates in proportion to their performance at the polls. Superdelegates are not pledged to the results of voting in their states and may cast their vote at the convention as they see fit. This year, there are 719 superdelegates, comprising 15 percent of all delegates at the Democratic convention.
Hillary Clinton now appears likely to gain a majority of the elected delegates on, or shortly before, the date of the California primary on June 7. At that time, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign will come to an end, for all practical purposes. The convention votes of the superdelegates, who overwhelmingly support Clinton, will ratify the decision of Democratic primary and caucus voters around the nation.
The presence of a large number of superdelegates at future conventions will continue to present the possibility of unpledged delegates overturning the popular choice of Democratic voters, as reflected in primaries and caucuses. This would be a profoundly undemocratic outcome.
Former Gov. Howard Dean, a Vermont superdelegate in his role as a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, has said that “superdelegates don’t represent people. I’m not elected by anyone. I’ll do what I think is right for the country.” While this claim is true as a statement of Democratic Party rules, Dean’s views are fundamentally incompatible with contemporary understandings of responsibility and accountability among political party leaders.
The number of superdelegates should be substantially reduced for future conventions. However, I am sympathetic to the argument that Democratic members of Congress, and Democratic governors, should be entitled to ex-officio delegate status.
There are legitimate reasons for giving the elected officials delegate status. How these officials do in their own elections can certainly be affected by the performance of the presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. Also, if a Democrat is elected president, the members of the House and Senate will have to work with her or him in Washington.
Currently, there are 188 Democrats in the House, 46 in the Senate, and 18 Democratic governors. This would come to 252 superdelegates, less than 40 percent of the actual number of 719 superdelegates this year.
The bulk of the superdelegates now come from the ranks of the Democratic National Committee, and the chairs and vice chairs of the Democratic Party in every state. Unlike the elected officials, who are themselves accountable to the voters, the party committee members are largely unknown. They are elected by party organizations, rather than through popular votes.
If Democratic voters strongly disapprove of how an elected official votes as a superdelegate, they could, in theory, vote the official out of office at the next election. However, there is no way by which Democratic voters can hold DNC and state party committee members accountable for their actions at the conventions.
In fact, very few Democratic voters could even identify the superdelegates from their states, other than senators, House members, and the governor. If the party committee members want to be delegates to future Democratic conventions, they should go as pledged delegates, and cast their votes in accordance with the results of the primaries and caucuses in their states.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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