Feb 18, 2008
Millions of Americans, many of them first-time activists, voted for Barack Obama in the Democratic Party primary. They voted in good faith, expecting their votes to be counted and respected.
Now many young voters are discovering that there are two kinds of delegates at Democratic Party Conventions: real delegates (duly elected from the states) and fake delegates, delegates artificially created by the Democratic National Committee. These delegates, who lack direct support from primary voters, are called superdelegates.
With over 200,000 signatures, a Move-On petition to Democratic Party superdelegates reads: "The superdelegates should let the voters decide between Clinton and Obama. Then support the people's choice."
The seating of delegates at Democratic Party conventions has often been a source of conflict. In 1964, Fanny Lou Hamer led a sit-in on the convention floor. The Mississippi Freedom Democrats wanted nothing more than a few convention seats-seats to which they were entitled by open, fair elections in their home state. Walter Mondale, who was to become the architect of the current superdelgate system, refused to seat the elected delegates of color in 1964. Wait until 1968, Mondale insisted, as the representative of the Credentials Committee.
The non-violent mass movements of the '60s, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the rise of the feminist movement, the change in voting age, the anti-nuclear campaigns- all generated a groundswell of new voters in Democratic party politics. However, far from welcoming the newly enfranchised activists, party leaders were filled with fear-class and race fear. They never accepted the democratic reforms enacted in the 1970s, when youth and people of color participated for the first time in establishment politics.
The superdelegate system, as we know it, came from the backlash of the 1980s. In January 1982, supported by Mondale, the Hunt Commission and Democratic National Committee reversed grassroots reforms. They rewrote the rules, not to make elections open and fair, but to make sure that centrist (right-wing) candidates maintained hegemony over nominees and party affairs. It was out of fear of new uncontrollable voters that the Commission created a block of uncommitted delegates drawn from a primarily white, male establishment. Mondale, the same insider who prevented elected Mississipppians from taking their seats in 1964, played the pivotal role in creating hundreds of unelected delegates in 1984. Superdelegates comprised 14 percent of the convention in 1984, and eighty-five percent of the superdelegates picked Mondale. Not long after superdelegates picked "the sure winner," Mondale was trounced in the presidential election. Nevertheless, the superdelgate number passed the 600 mark by 1988. The Jesse Jackson campaign, especially the massive victory over Dukkakis on Super Tuesday, electrified the party and the country. Jackson won 7 million primary votes in 1988, more than Mondale won as the nominee in 1984. Many party regulars were gripped with panic, and some superdelegates organized a stop-Jackson movement within the party. Jackson protested the role of superdelegates, but his challenge went unheeded. Party leaders continued to look for ways to blunt the growing power of grassroots movements. While they could not stop voters from voting, they could dilute the impact of the reform movements by manufacturing added voters as a countervailing force.
Mondale was quite open about the undemocratic aims of the superdelegate system. In a number of talks, he acknowledged that superdelegates were created with the explicit aim of preventing voter insurgencies. He espoused his anti-democratic sentiments in the New York Times, February 2, 1992, where he called for expansion of superdelgate numbers:
"The election is the business of the people. But the nomination is more properly the business of the parties....The problem lies in the reforms that were supposed to open the nominating process....Party leaders have lost the power to screen candidates and select a nominee. The solution is to reduce the influence of the primaries and boost the influence of the party leaders....The superdelgate category established within the Democratic Party after 1984 allows some opportunity for this, but should be strengthened."
Today, faced with enthusiastic, grassroots support for Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton now espouses the old Mondale position (in the guarded, euphemistic language of a candidate), pitting the party regulars against the danger of the popular vote. I do not intend here to compare the merits of the candidates. But there is a question of principle involved in the superdelgate controversy. The very integrity of our elections is at stake. No vote is safe when a self-appointed group can nullify the results of a primary election that displeases them.
When Obama recently told a reporter that he thinks superdelegates should respect the wishes of the primary voters, Clinton took exception. "Superdelegates are by design supposed to exercise independent judgment," she said. She also claimed that Obama's view is "contrary to what the definition of superdelegate has historically been." Historically she is right, of course. Superdelegates were never expected to respect the integrity of elections. But are we compelled today to embrace a system that was corrupt in its very design? Should voters be supervised, and finally overruled, when the superdelegates disagree with their wishes?
All Democratic members of the House and Senate become superdelegates automatically. Let us not forget that George Bush led the vast majority of Democrats by the nose into pre-emptive war, implicating most of the current superdelegates in the biggest catastrophe of recent decades. What makes these individuals wiser than nurses, technicians, custodians, lawyers, teachers, athletes, fire fighters, proprietors-all who voted in good faith in the recent primary? Why don't the superdelegates do the job they were elected to do-end the war-and let the voters do their job in the primaries-select the next nominee?
And finally, what is the difference between superdelegate intervention in the outcome of the primary and the right-wing intervention in Florida in 2000, when Republican judges stopped the counting of votes, and appointed Bush as President? How many times will the loser in an election be imposed on the electorate?
Superdelgate Intervention Unconstitutional
Even critics of superdelegate deals tend to underestimate the gravity of the issue. In its very essence, the superdelegate system is unconstitutional. It destroys the right of primary voters to choose their own nominee. It offends the principle of one person one vote. In three primary cases (Nixon v. Herndon, 1927, Nixon v. Condon, 1932, Smith v. Allwright, 1944) the Supreme Court affirmed that the right to vote in a primary (a right which includes the right to be counted and respected), is protected by the Constitution. Officials cannot legally circumvent the vote. These were discrimination cases, but the arguments apply directly to the superdelegate situation in the Democratic primary.
Up to a point, a political party is master of its own house. But no party, or group within a party, can legally tamper with primary results. In Terry v. Adams (1953), the Court ruled against the "Jay Bird Association," a group of powerful white Democrats who tried to create a private enforcement process within the Democratic primary. Justice Clark ruled that "any part of the machinery for choosing officials becomes subject to the Constitution's restraints."
The superdelegate system flouts the very purpose for which primaries were conceived. "Fighting" Bob LaFollette, the Wisconsin progressive who organized the first primaries in 1903, hated boss-controlled conventions. The aim of the primaries is to remove the nominations from the hands of professionals and the wealthy donors whom professionals obey. The superdelegate issue should not be resolved through deals or negotiations. The integrity of elections is not negotiable. The superdelegate system deserves to be abolished.
Oh yes, there is one small practical consideration, an afterthought perhaps. If the superdelegates, in their arrogance, defy the majority will of the voters, the stain on the Democratic Party nominee-Obama or Clinton-would nearly destroy the chances for victory in November. The Party would be divided. Idealistic voters would be disillusioned. And McCain, who happens to be associated with electoral reform (McCain backed Arizona's Clean Money system) could easily turn superdelegate meddling into a scandal. The Republican Party has no superdelegates.
Respecting the will of the voters is a precondition to unity in the Democratic Party and victory in November.
Paul Rockwell, formerly assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern University, is a national columnist who lives in the Bay Area.
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