Early in the 2016 Presidential Primary season, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had what appeared to be an insurmountable lead in the delegate count for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Before any votes were cast or any caucuses were held, Hillary Clinton appeared to have almost 20% of the delegates she needed to become the Democratic Presidential Nominee. Those delegates that were being counted were endorsements by superdelegates and they are one of two big stories that are not being adequately explored this election cycle.
Yesterday - Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - the New York primary election was held and the big story of the day was voter disenfranchisement. For those who did not hear about the news, it is because it was a story virtually ignored by every major media outlet. While Bernie Sanders stories surfaced from months ago with the Senator complaining about the closed primary (only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary, only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, Independents - those without party affiliation - have to sit it out and wait for the general election), the stories of massive corruption or incompetence in New York State did not involve any of Sanders's complaints. In fact, as one who was born, raised, and lived in New York for the first thirty-five years of my life, that is simply The Way It Is Done. In other words, no one in New York State who is at all politically active and is not party affiliated expects to vote in the primaries (I recall having a very liberal classmate in high school who purposely registered as a Republican solely so he could vote for Arlen Specter in the primary and attempt to influence the contest in that way - Sanders supporters have had months to change their affiliation to Democratic if they wanted to vote for him in the primary [though, admittedly, they should not have to and a far more democratic option would be for Independent voters to be allowed to vote in a single primary - i.e. Democrats vote in the Democratic primary, Republicans vote in the Republican primary, Independents show up and say "I want a Democratic ballot" and they get to vote.])
No, the real news for the New York Presidential Primary was the systematic failures and frauds that occurred to keep voters from fairly casting their primary ballots. Polling places that were supposed to be open at 6 A.M., so voters could vote before work, were not opened on time. Voting machines did not work. And lifelong Democratic voters discovered that they had been removed from the voting rolls, despite having proof of voter registration. The fact that several people were able to provide photographic evidence of how the voter registration card scanned at the Board Of Elections did not match their original voter registration card (signatures and hand-written numbers that did not come close to matching!) that showed the Democrat suddenly choosing no party affiliation was enough proof that something was rotten to get Election Justice USA to create a lawsuit and attempt to sue for the right of those voters to vote. Sadly, changes that happen after the fact seldom yield genuine results. Short of a wild scenario like Clinton campaign workers being involved in a scandal to disenfranchise Democrat voters - whereby, for example, voters who responded to phone bank polling that they planned to vote for Sanders then had new, forged, voter registration cards filed for them removing them from the Democratic Party - and then having the New York State Democratic Party give all of the delegates to Sanders ("punitive damages") or run the entire primary election a second time with more protections in place, real change is unlikely to happen.
New York State's primary election mess is one of two big stories that no one is truly talking about. The other is superdelegates. In 2008, Hillary Clinton began primary season with a massive lead in superdelegate endorsements and when Barack Obama began to pick up momentum, she faced massive shifts in pledges away from her and toward Obama. The superdelegate defections pushed Barack Obama's delegate count over the threshold for him to win the nomination (Clinton received more votes from primary voters, Obama won more state contests). Superdelegates were essential to determining the Democratic Presidential Nominee and missing from the 2016 primary cycle are stories of any superdelegates shifting their support from Clinton to Sanders.
What Are Superdelegates?
Superdelegates are a colloquial expression for "unpledged delegates." Superdelegates is, in some ways, a better term for them given that they yield an incredible amount of authority and influence over the democratic process. On the surface, superdelegates are a frighteningly clear way that the desires of the voters in our representative democracy may be contradicted. Take, for example, Iowa. Iowa was the first caucus in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nomination Contest and the results were incredibly close. Clinton had 701 "votes" (state caucus representatives, it's a weird process, think "votes" and it's less confusing), Sanders had 697. That's 49.9% of Democratic Iowans for Clinton, 49.6% for Sanders. For the 44 pledged delegates who will be sent to the Democratic National Convention, that would be 22 for each. In actuality, it is 23 for Clinton, 21 for Sanders - Clinton got the extra delegate for winning and that makes some sense. But then, there are the state's seven superdelegates and they all pledged allegiance to Clinton. So, a statistical tie suddenly becomes a 30 to 21 electoral victory for Clinton (there is still one uncommitted Iowa superdelegate). Perhaps a better example is New Hampshire. New Hampshire has 24 pledged delegates elected by the primary voters and they broke to Sanders in his first real win of election season (60.98% to Clinton's 38.2%). Sanders was awarded 15 delegates to Clinton's 9. But, six of the eight superdelegates from New Hampshire immediately committed to Clinton, turning a Sanders victory into an electoral tie (15 delegates each).
Superdelegates are party-affiliated Congressional Representatives, Senators, Governors, and Distinguished Party Leaders (like former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and current President Obama). However, in 2016, there are 715 Democrat superdelegate votes (there are 719 superdelegates, but some only get half-votes, so for the purpose of this article, we'll just call them 715 superdelegates), which is actually down from the 824.5 Democratic superdelegate voters who were part of the 2008 nominating process. But, of the 715 Democrat superdelegates, 434 are simply members of the Democratic National Committee. What does that mean? It means that 434 "special" people are able to wield the influence of tens of thousands of people simply because they are part of the Democratic hierarchy.
What Merit Is There To Superdelegates?
Superdelegates have limited merit in a true democracy, but they are essential to maintaining the stability of a political party . . . from an authoritarian perspective. While there is an excellent argument to be made for ending political parties in the United States (read one right here!), the truth is that political parties are multi-billion dollar corporations that, like other big businesses, are out to maintain their power, control and influence, not do good or hold an ideological position in the governance of the United States. Conceptually, superdelegates act as an effective balance for political parties in maintaining a level of transparency. Superdelegates can illustrate how a government will run with a candidate as the elected official.
Democratic Representatives in the U.S. House Of Representatives are superdelegates. As they begin to pledge themselves to candidates, their endorsements essentially say "I would happily work with this person if they are elected." Because delegates at the DNC are allocated based on population (i.e. Iowa has 44 delegates, New York has 247), Congressional representatives acting as superdelegates essentially reward states that vote democratic. The difference between the pledged delegates and superdelegates is essentially the difference between raw population and population of Democrats. In other words, Representatives acting as superdelegates reward states for being more Democratic - i.e. Alaska does not have so many Democrats living there, so its ability to help choose the Democratic candidate is essentially muted by having superdelegates in the form of Representatives who are not only from more populous states, but more Democratic states. There is some logic in that.
There is slightly less logic in Democratic Senators acting as superdelegates. Senators represent the States (not, actually, the citizens) in the U.S. Senate. Democratic Senators acting as superdelegates is another acknowledgement of states being more Democratic than others and using that authority to help elect a nominee for the Democratic party. There is something illogical to Democratic Senators being made superdelegates as their vote does not represent the will of the people, nor the Democratic flavor of the state they represent. In essence, the Senators who act as superdelegates are a quiet endorsement of how those Senators will behave and treat the candidate should they be elected. Senators who place votes as superdelegates are saying "I would rather work with this person as President than the other one." Given that the legislative and executive branches were structured to act as checks on one another (as opposed to in collusion with one another), this type of endorsement is essentially contrary to the vision of the Founders of the United States. As well, if superdelegates functioned according to philosophy as opposed to political ambitions, Senators who would work with either candidate or entirely independent of either candidate would abstain from exercising their superdelegate vote (i.e. if the Democratic Senator from California is ideologically in line with the philosophies of both candidates and would enjoy writing legislation for either, there is nothing that forces her to commit to either one).
Then there are the Democratic Governors. Democratic Governors are superdelegates and this is yet another way states are rewarded for being "more Democratic" than the states that have low-Democrat populations. This is a weird check on the electoral process as governors endorsing Presidential candidates serves far less of a function of working with the nominee than it does setting up for a self-serving sense of patronage. The President Of The United States has limited interaction with governors - they call them when the Governor's state is requesting Federal disaster relief or is visiting the state, but the Governor rules their particular berg (one finds it hard to believe that Governor Phil Bryant and President Barack Obama had any meaningful back and forth about the Governor signing his "religious freedom" homosexual discrimination bill into law before Bryant ratified the bill) - so Governors endorsing a Presidential candidate might be pragmatically written off as "this is someone I wouldn't mind going to, hat in hand, when half my state is under water." In actuality, though, governors endorsing presidential candidates is part of an elaborate system of patronage - former governors are far more electable as Presidential nominees than Representatives and are second only to Senators for ascending to the top Executive position. Governors, as a practical measure, endorse Presidential candidates hoping that if the candidate they endorse wins, in the future they will have that person's aid in campaigning for President should they run.
Former Democrat Presidents are also superdelegates. If anyone should know which candidate might have what it takes to lead the United States as a Democrat President, it would be Former Presidents Carter and Clinton and President Obama. Clinton, obviously, is not recusing himself from the nominating process for his personal tie to candidate Hillary Clinton, but both Carter and Obama have not publicly endorsed. They are either content to let the will of the people be heard or do not want to risk their clout backing someone who may lose the nomination process. The Former Presidents being superdelegates makes some sense; their failure to endorse and throw their clout behind candidates makes less sense. Carter's statements about the United States being an oligarchy thanks to corporate influence in politics makes it clear he is ideologically behind Sanders; Obama and Clinton are financially backed by the same people and groups, so the only potential surprise from President Obama would be him suddenly turning on the system that made him President to stand up for a higher principle. Given the unlikelihood of that happening, his "sit back and wait" attitude illustrates how conservative he will be with the political capital he is taking from the White House when he leaves.
Then there are the 434 superdelegates, the majority of Democrat superdelegates. The majority of the Democrat superdelegates are simply members of the Democratic National Committee. They are Democrats who are special and accomplished only for being members of the Democratic Party. Take, for example, unpledged superdelegate Donna Brazile (I picked her because she is actually pretty cool!). Brazile had the top spot in the DNC before current Clinton-shill Debbie Wasserman Schultz and she is a generally amazing person. She has worked on numerous campaigns, is highly educated and politically involved. Her superdelegate vote weighs the same as that of California Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Barbara Boxer, Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, and Former President Jimmy Carter. Brazile's superdelegate vote is equivalent to 5% of the voting power of the District Of Colombia. Seriously. Washington, D.C. has 20 delegates who will be elected by the people. Brazile has one; she has the electoral power in the primary race of tens of thousands of citizens . . . and she was never elected by the people to any position of authority. She was simply promoted within the club by other club members . . . and there are hundreds and hundreds of people like her.
How Are The Superdelegates Failing The Democratic Party In 2016?
The superdelegates are actively subverting the will of the people in the 2016 Democratic Primary contest and illustrating the severe faultlines within party politics. Superdelegates are both practically and philosophically anathema to representative democracy and even the current head of the DNC acknowledges this. When Schultz declared that superdelegates help "protect party leaders from running against grassroot activists," she declared that the Democratic Party was a top-down organization, asserting its authority over its members, as opposed to being a collective that represents the common interests of its membership. The difference is all the difference and it illustrates that the Democratic Party is more interested in maintaining its own power and control than it is in doing what a polictical party is supposed to do.
In short, political parties developed by common interest to form power blocs that would attempt to make effective political action. People affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Parties because they (theoretically) shared core political beliefs and a vision for the state in which they lived and the nation as a whole. All political parties began with grassroots activism and the failing of the Democratic Party in the 2016 contest is that a schism has formed between the establishment members and a new, younger, class of idealistic Democratic voters who want to make the Democratic Party into something they want. The ridiculousness of Schultz's statement is that it defeats the purpose of a political party; if the majority of people want a certain vision of the future and request specific political action, that is the core belief of the party - it is not up to the leadership to deny that vision and claim that they represent those people.
Specifically, superdelegates are utterly failing the Democratic Party because they are far more concerned with maintaining power and control and representing an antiquated notion of the party than they are with representing the party's base. Take, for example, Michigan. Michigan has two Democratic Senators in Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both of whom are superdelegates and both have committed their votes to Hillary Clinton. Michigan has 130 delegates who were elected in the primary and Bernie Sanders had a decisive victory in Michigan, winning the state by over 17,000 votes. Peters and Stabenow represent Michigan, not the citizens of the state and their endorsements of Hillary Clinton is either unfathomable or one of the most transparent acts of political toadying in the 2016 election cycle. Michigan has an open primary, which means that ANY registered voter can walk into the election station on primary day and request either a Republican or Democratic ballot and vote. In Michigan, Republican candidate Donald Trump received approximately 483,751 votes and Bernie Sanders received 595,222 (Clinton pulled 576,795 votes). The beautiful thing about Michigan's primary is that, as an open primary, it informs those in authority as to the true nature of the state. So, for example, the perception of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is that it is rednecks who are Trump supporters. Yes, Trump won the UP, but so did Sanders! Michigan is perceived as a barely Democratic state, but Sanders soundly beat both Clinton AND Trump in an apples to apples contest (registered Republicans could walk in and vote for Sanders, just as registered Democrats could vote for Trump).
So, what does this have to do with the superdelegates? Peters and Stabenow have publicly endorsed Clinton and plan to vote for her at the Democratic National Convention. Peters and Stabenow were elected to represent Michigan and Michigan - as a state made up of voters - overwhelmingly said that Sanders was their candidate of choice. There is no political ideology that explains how Stabenow and Peters can claim to represent the state of Michigan at the national level as superdelegates when Michiganders voted Sanders as their candidate of choice. Not only are Stabenow and Peters utterly failing the state of Michigan, they are failing the Democratic Party by enforcing a top-down sensibility of what the Party is. Michigan voters clearly voted that they want a Democratic Party and candidate that upholds the values and platforms represented by Bernie Sanders; that is who they want in power to represent Michigan values and political clout. Peters and Stabenow endorsing Clinton flies in the face of Democratic voters and the overall will of the people of the state they were elected to represent. It is votes like theirs that took a clear electoral victory in a state for Sanders and made it into a nomination loss for the candidate.
The DNC Superdelegates are absolutely failing both the Democrats and the voters throughout the United States. Take, for example, Wyoming. Wyoming is generally-regarded as the least-Democratic state in the United States with a population of approximately 30% who identify as Democrat. In the least-Democratic state, Bernie Sanders won with 55.7% of the caucus votes. Unlike other states where the victor has almost always emerged with one more pledged delegate than the loser (remember Iowa - 23/21, despite being a fraction of a percentage point separating Clinton and Sanders?), somehow both Sanders and Clinton ended up with 7 pledged delegates each from the caucuses (if there were consistency on the national stage, the result would have been at least 8/6!). Wyoming's four superdelegates are all DNC special people, none of whom is nearly as accomplished as Donna Brazile. All four have committed to voting for Hillary Clinton. There are, truly, only two ways to interpret this commitment: either the members of the DNC think they are smarter and know what Wyoming Democrats want and need better than the electorate (sadly, in a true democracy, we must accept that with the freedom to choose comes the chance that people will choose wrong, but that is democratic!) or that Hillary Clinton's brand of Democrat is more in-line with the thinking of most residents of Wyoming, which is to say less of a Democrat. Follow the logic; Wyoming Democrats (it was a closed caucus, so only Wyoming Democrats could caucus) voted for Bernie Sanders. Wyoming is mostly Republican, so endorsing a candidate to represent Wyoming (as a whole) better would be endorsing a candidate that was MORE-Republican than they were Democrat. This, of course, begs the question: what merit is there in giving so much authority to superdelegates who will vote to make your party less of what it is? The implication of members of the DNC establishment voting against the will of the people in the most-Republican state (a state they are statistically unable to win in a general election regardless) is that on the national level, Democrats should try to be more like Republicans, as opposed to "voters need a clear, diametrically opposed choice." Or, Wyoming's DNC elite just proved they are too spineless to stand up for a principle that their, admittedly small, population clearly preferred. One suspects those four DNC operatives might find it hard to do party building in Wyoming when they support a candidate who is not the one the people in the party there are voting for!
The impact of Wyoming's superdelegates is almost enough to make one revolt against democracy in the United States. After all, four unelected, unaccomplished individuals in the least-Democratic state will yield the same amount of political clout as 20% of the Democratic voters in the nation's capital which is one of the most powerful Democratic strongholds in the Union.
Throughout the United States, voters are struggling to make their voices heard by (attempting) to vote in the primary elections and the young generation of new voters, who will bear the consequences of both the primary election's results and the determinations of the general election in November, are overwhelmingly registering Democrat in order to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. What can possibly be said to the generation that is active, involved, and contributing about the nature of our democracy and their role in it when superdelegates exist and wield so much influence, so poorly. Why should young people become members of the Democratic Party when they actively say - with their voices, their votes and their dollars! - that this is what they want the Party to be and whose vision for the future they want and they are told to sit down and shut up? Debbie Wasserman Schultz made a tremendous faux pas by telling the truth when she said she was trying to protect the party from grassroots activist; she - and many other establishment Democrats - are terrified of young, active voters who might change the Democratic Party. What Schultz and the superdelegates fail to recognize is that it is the people's party to change. If young voters are the ones surging to enroll into the Democratic Party in order to elect Sanders as their candidate, then those voters should be either heard through stripping the DNC superdelegates of their vote or they should be given superdelegates of their own. It is undemocratic and unethical to enroll new members into the Democratic Party to boost their political clout and membership only to ignore and actively circumvent their activism.
In fact, the votes of the superdelegates that demonstrably contradict the clear will of the voters not only might, but should, spell the end of the Democratic Party.
For other political articles, please check out:
Did Phil Bryant Just Enter The 2016 Presidential Contest?
Why Modern Libertarianism Is Disastrous For The United States
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© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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