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Voters—and Nobody Else—Will Pick the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee

This past weekend, the party changed its rules, and became more democratic

Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez pauses after a session during the DNC's summer meeting in Chicago. (Annie Rice/AP)

Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Tom Perez pauses after a session during the DNC's summer meeting in Chicago. (Annie Rice/AP)

On Saturday, the 447 members of the Democratic National Committee voted to democratize the party’s presidential nomination process by eliminating any say that super delegates will have on the first ballot for the presidential nominee at the 2020 convention. It’s a major stride forward towards fuller democracy.

Unlike the other delegates to national party conventions, the super delegates—members of Congress, governors and national committee members—aren’t there to vote for the presidential candidate they support in proportion to how many delegates that candidate won in their state. They’re simply there by virtue of their position, regardless of how of how many delegates, or how few, their favored candidate won in their state’s primary or caucus. At the 2016 convention, 715 of the 4500 delegates were super-delegates, and they cast their votes for the candidate of their choice no matter who the voters of their state had backed.

Saturday’s reform means that going forward, super-delegates will have no vote on conventions’ first ballot. And not since 1952 has the balloting for president gone past the first ballot at a Democratic convention.

Of course other obstacles to a more robust democracy remain in the nominating process and general elections. Big money donors and self funders may still have an outsized role, but the more than two-year effort for party reform can claim success and, I hope, keep marching and following up in the 57 state and territorial parties.

Full disclosure: For the last two years I was the Bernie Sanders-appointed Vice Chair of the Unity Reform Commission, created unanimously by the delegates at the party’s 2016 convention, and which propelled the reforms adopted this past weekend. But these reforms should be viewed not as a victory for Bernie, but instead as a victory for those who want democracy and voting rights ahead of positional power and influence. In addition to changing the role of automatic delegates, other reforms included significant caucus and primary reforms as well as creating an ombudsman committee on alleged violations by party officers, limiting deals between the DNC and presidential campaigns, mandating greater financial transparency, and safeguards on financial conflict of interest.

Most important, the driving force behind these reforms was as much DNC Chair Tom Perez as it was the members of the Commission or of the party’s Rules and By-Laws Committee that drafted the resolutions for adoption.

As we wrote in the introduction to the Unity Reform Commission report, “We recognize that voting rights in the United States are under attack. … Commission members, regardless of who appointed them, stand united to work for change inside our Party and across our nation.” We all came to believe that Democrats’ credibility on voting rights requires significant changes at all levels of the Party, and not just attacks on Republicans for their efforts to prevent voting in general elections. Delegates adopted our proposals for same day voter registration and same day party registration for both caucuses and primaries as well as for absentee and early voting. It was clear that New York and other states are deliberately closing primaries in ways that restrict party building. For example, to vote in the upcoming September 13 New York primary, the 3.5 million unaffiliated voters needed to register as Democrats by last October 13! Now, either those state parties must change, or they may be penalized in the delegate selection process.  

No longer should we allow governors at the state level, or presidents at the DNC to simply take over party organization for their own benefit.

Some might ask why we focus on party rules when our sole focus should be fighting President Trump and Republicans in the elections now only ten weeks away. But limiting our focus to candidates rather than democracy and party building is a major reason we are in this mess. For those of us fighting for change, what we stand for is as important as what we are fighting against.  We are unlikely to recruit the number of active leaders and volunteers we need if the deck is stacked against them inside the party. Resistance efforts from Brazil and Argentina to the U.K. and South Africa are all about fighting corruption and building accountability inside parties, not just finding attractive candidates. Some might argue it’s time for a new party here, but for those of us who believe that is unlikely or impossible, we must pay attention to the rules and platforms at the state and national levels, not just to finding new candidates focused on their donors and consultants.

We need to build sustainable political organizations in the 3,142 counties across our nation. In many of them the Democratic Party simply does not exist, and in hundreds of others it barely exists. More important, unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats in more than two-thirds of the states. Imagine if we actually focused on party organization based on issues, and candidates were accountable, before and after elections, to real political organizations on those issues—instead being focused on their own journey to political fame and often fortune. 

No longer should we allow governors at the state level, or presidents at the DNC to simply take over party organization for their own benefit. We will only build parties if they mean something beyond cheerleading for candidates. Yes, the rules matter and on Saturday Democrats demonstrated that rigged rules, or even the perception that they are rigged, can be changed. We don’t need to play with a stacked deck, at least inside the party. Big money in politics, gerrymandered electoral districts, the absence of automatic voter registration in most states, the absence of mail or early voting, are all on the list of how the oligarchy continues to limit our democracy—abetting the constitutional limits at both the state and federal levels designed to make change difficult. 

But if we can convince Americans, particularly those interested in progressive political change, that they can actually build progressive political organizations and that candidate addiction can be replaced by candidate accountability, we are on the road to a deeper democracy.

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Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen was the president of the Communications Workers of America, a 700,000 member labor union representing workers in Canada and the United States. Cohen was first elected by acclamation, in 2005, and left office in 2015. In 2015, Cohen joined presidential candidate Bernie Sander’s campaign as a liaison to organized labor.

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