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The Superdelegate Solution

How Democrats can democratize the primaries—and keep the peace.

If anything confirms to Bernie Sanders supporters that the presidential nominating system is rigged, it’s the existence of superdelegates. These 712 Democratic Party insiders control about 15 percent of total delegates, meaning they could easily determine a close race. In addition, they create momentum for candidates closer to the establishment, like Hillary Clinton, and force insurgents into an uphill battle.

“The current system is designed to stand against grassroots activists and the will of the voters,” says Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, herself a superdelegate by virtue of being a member of Congress, in a petition calling for the abolition of the system. Earlier this month, Senator Elizabeth Warren echoed Gabbard, declaring, “I’m a superdelegate and I don’t believe in superdelegates.”

Sanders backers want to eliminate superdelegates by making a party rules change at the Democratic National Convention next month in Philadelphia. Naturally, many superdelegates, who would ultimately have to agree to curtail their own power, have fought back—most notably the Congressional Black Caucus, which last week unanimously voted to “oppose any suggestion to eliminate the category of Unpledged Delegate (aka Super Delegate).”

The CBC’s main rationale is that the current system allows elected officials to be seated as convention delegates, without having to run for those slots against their own constituents. “The concern many of us have,” said Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, “is that our numbers would shrink in terms of having influence over and involvement with what happens at the convention.”

If that’s the problem, there’s an easy work-around—one that respects party stalwarts’ contributions and preserves the original superdelegate function, while prioritizing primary voters. To make it work, you have to provide confidence that the voters’ will is accurately recorded, which means changing the primary election structure. But there is a path to returning something better resembling democracy to the Democratic nominating process that should satisfy both progressive upstarts and party loyalists.

The fix is simple. Superdelegates—who are Democratic National Committee officers, elected officials, and party luminaries (former DNC chairs, current and former presidents and vice presidents, and prior leaders in Congress)—would still get a seat at the convention. Nancy Pelosi would not have to run for a delegate spot in San Francisco, nor would Barack Obama in Chicago. They could participate in all convention functions, from voting on the party platform to approving credentials. This involves everyone in the process and motivates them to work for the nominee in the fall.

The only difference is this: For the presidential nomination, superdelegates would be prohibited from voting on the first ballot. Only if no candidate received a majority of delegates on that ballot would superdelegate votes come into play in subsequent deliberations.

In 1982, the Hunt Commission established superdelegates for the explicit purpose of giving party elites a check on the nominating process. This fix preserves their role, but only in the event of a closely contested race without a clear winner. If no candidate obtains a majority of delegates, there’s every reason to include those with the background and experience to help guide the ultimate decision.

But the fix also makes sure that the choice of a nominee comes down to the voters, not party elites. Top officials already have plenty of other ways to affect the primary process—through steering campaign contributions, endorsements, media megaphones, and their votes as citizens in primary elections themselves. They don’t need an extra convention vote as well.

Superdelegates often maintain that they would never override the will of the voters anyway, so they should have no problem with allowing ordinary voters to predominate. Their common complaint—that they just want a seat at the convention without having to elbow out some party activist—is neutralized by this fix. Top officials would get their seat; they just wouldn’t get a vote on the nominee until the people go first.

For this solution to succeed, you’d need to maximize participation in primary elections, so the people’s choice can be accurately divined. Some of the needed reforms, like same-day voter registration, or expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, are decided by state legislatures, and in states where Democrats don’t have control, there’s only so much they can do. But the party does have a lot of power to create as fair a primary system as possible.

State parties decide how to allocate their delegates, whether through a primary election or a caucus system. Caucuses clearly limit participation by requiring voters to show up at a specific time and sit through hours of speeches and instructions to cast a ballot. They should be phased out. The DNC could reward states that hold regular primaries with extra delegates, or sanction states that hold caucuses. State parties complain that primaries are more expensive; the DNC could offer to pay for them.

Whether to open primaries to voters who aren’t registered Democrats is a controversial topic, further fraught in the aftermath of the Sanders-Clinton nomination battle, in which Sanders fared better with independents­—but performed relatively poorly in the 25 closed contests where they couldn’t vote. But it’s clearly in the Democratic Party’s long-term interest to open up its primary system. Younger voters have stopped joining parties. Democrats should want to attract them; the party’s future as an electoral force depends on it. At the very least, state parties should have generous deadlines to allow participation in their primaries, ideally allowing party registration within days of the vote.

The counting of primary ballots, and the way those counts translate into delegates, matters as well. What happened this year in the Nevada caucuses, where a credentials fight angered Sanders supporters who felt cheated out of a handful of delegates, should never have gotten to that point. Rewarding candidates for organizing county conventions instead of garnering people’s votes defeats the purpose of un-rigging the primary system. The vote in the election (preferably a primary and not a caucus) should determine the delegate allocation, end of story.

If the DNC and state parties made the above alterations, they would ensure that every interested voter has the opportunity to weigh in on their preferred presidential nominee. That restores credibility to the process. Then the party can take away superdelegates’ first-ballot vote—which would only require a simple rules change—while knowing that the entire party’s diverse voices will have a chance to weigh in on the Democratic nomination.

State parties are endorsing the idea of diminishing superdelegate influence. Maine effectively abolished them by mandating that its unpledged delegates cast ballots in proportion to the vote of the primary election. West Virginia has also proposed the abolition of superdelegates, along the lines of the Maine system. Over the weekend, California called for the conversion of superdelegate elected officials into “nonvoting guests,” and for the binding of superdelegate votes for DNC officials to the winner in their state.

But the piecemeal approach isn’t good enough. If you’re going to use elections to decide party nominees, you must confer some legitimacy on that system. Superdelegates, hard-to-access elections, and under-the-radar delegate maneuvering all chip away at that legitimacy. The easiest and least disruptive way to correct this is to let superdelegates be superdelegates—but to let those who vote for a Democratic candidate get the first crack at deciding the outcome.