Sunday, August 24, 2008

What's So Super About Delegates?

One of the most controversial aspects of the Democratic Party's presidential nominating process this year involves the so-called "superdelegates". I will look at three questions:

  1. What are superdelegates?
  2. How are they chosen?
  3. What is intended to be their role?

The Republican Party has a similar mechanism for assuring delegate slots to party VIPs. But the Democrats' process is more controversial, because 1) their nomination contest this year was so close that the superdelegates might have made the difference in deciding the winner; and 2) it represents a reversal of an earlier party position to the effect that all delegates should be elected by primaries or caucuses without regard to their position within the party.

In this post, I wrote about the Democratic Party reform commission that implemented, effective with the 1972 election, delegate-selection rules that were intended to take the selection out of the hands of political bosses. The party later decided that those reforms, which looked good on paper, had a downside that they wanted to correct.

The new rules had contributed to 1) chaos at their conventions caused, at least in part, by the inability of established political veterans to control events; and 2) non-establishment candidacies, such as those of George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, which were deemed not to serve the interest of strengthening the party's national appeal.

By 1982, a new commission, chaired by Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina, came up with a plan to reserve certain delegate slots for Democratic members of Congress, and state party chairs and vice-chairs. Those were the first so-called "superdelegates". The rules have changed in the meantime, but there have been superdelegates at every Democratic convention since 1984.

Under the current rules, there are two classes of superdelegates. Some party leaders, including members of Congress and of the Democratic National Committee, governors, and former holders of certain high offices, are guaranteed superdelegate status. (Almost guaranteed: Senator Joe Lieberman, who is for all practical purposes a Democratic senator, is disqualified, because party rules disqualify anyone who "has publicly expressed support for ... a presidential candidate of another political party." Lieberman has endorsed Republican candidate John McCain.)

The second class of superdelegates are called "add-on delegates". Here is an NPR report on that classification. It is the best description that I've found, but Ina Jaffe of NPR admits that she has found no clear way to describe exactly what they are. It seems as though the bottom line is that it is another way to allocate delegate slots to VIPs. This category, however, is much smaller than the "party leader and elected official" or "PLEO" category that I described above.

The add-ons are chosen by Democratic state committees or conventions in the various states.

What is the role of the superdelegates? It seems to me that part of the rationale must be simply to honor the service of party leaders. If one has achieved one of the leading roles that qualify one for superdelegate status, it would be an insult to keep them out of the convention.

But it's also clear that the party wanted to reverse some of the effects of the reforms that were instituted in 1972. Having the veteran political leaders inside the convention hall is intended to make things run more smoothly. It could perhaps have avoided, for instance, the chaos that caused McGovern's 1972 acceptance speech to be delayed until the middle of the night.

But should superdelegates affect the outcome of a nomination battle? They have just as much of a vote as the other delegates. And it was the choice of outsiders such as McGovern and Carter, as much as anything, that caused party leaders to create the superdelegate system.

Certain difficulties with that idea were brought to light during the 2008 Democratic primaries. In general, it is open to criticism as being undemocratic, if the candidate winning the most pledged delegates in the primaries and caucuses is denied the nomination by the superdelegates.

But more specifically, it would presumably have enraged African Americans if, when for the first time one of their number won most of the pledged delegates, he were denied the nomination by this mostly-white group of political bosses. Hillary Clinton advocated such an outcome, once she saw that it presented her only chance to salvage her campaign for the nomination. But that nomination might have been worthless, if it had been won at the cost of alienating such an important segment of the Democratic coalition.

Is the concept of superdelegates in both parties undemocratic? Shouldn't the nomination be decided by majority support in the primaries and caucuses? Democracy is often summed up as "the majority rules". That is, I suppose, one of the first political concepts that is taught to youngsters in school civics classes. But, rightly or wrongly, there are several aspects to the American system that restrict the power of a majority.

The electoral college, as we saw in 2000, can prevent the candidate who wins at least a plurality of the popular vote from becoming president.

States' equal representation in the Senate means that a vote by a majority of senators does not necessarily include senators representing a majority of the population. And if a minority of Senate members is sufficiently determined, they can, via a filibuster, defeat a majority of as many as 59 of the 100 senators.

The Bill of Rights protects certain rights that cannot be violated by a majority vote by Congress, state legislatures, referenda, or other means.

Some of these, especially the last one, are intended to prevent the "tyranny of the majority" from denying fundamental rights to minorities.

Can the superdelegate concept be dressed up in such elegant terms? Probably not. It seems to be more a pragmatic answer to certain concerns on the part of the parties.

It will be interesting to see whether the controversy over superdelegates in the Democratic Party causes the pendulum to swing back toward a more democratic delegate-selection process for future conventions.

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