Superdelegates: An Obstacle on the Road to Democratic Elections

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Ms. Unger is an associate professor of history at Santa Clara University, the author of Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer, and a writer for the History News Service.

Hillary Clinton's wins in Texas and Ohio have revitalized the possibility that in the tight race for the Democratic nomination, the deciding votes could be cast by the party's superdelegates. That's bad for the Democratic party.

Why's that? Because the Democratic convention in Denver has the potential to showcase democracy at its best. But if superdelegates choose the candidate without regard to the voters, it will highlight democratic abuses at their worst.

No matter which candidate you choose to support in the current presidential election, you should recognize that superdelegates have no place in any democratic nominating system. They represent a giant step backward in the march towards genuine democracy.

So why on earth will the vote of approximately 20 percent of the delegates - the superdelegates - be allowed to trump the will of of the voters at the 2008 Democratic National Convention? After the 1968 convention in Chicago highlighted the problems inherent in the Democrats' tradition of nomination by party bosses, the Dems experimented briefly with making the process more democratic.

It was during that experiment, in 1976, that Washington outsider Jimmy Carter won the nomination against the wishes of many Democratic party leaders. High-ranking Democrats were determined to never again have to sit back and look on helplessly as a candidate outside the control of the established political machinery became their party's duly elected candidate. So superdelegates were introduced in 1982 and implemented two years later. The Republican party, by the way, has no superdelegates.

Office-holding superdelegates (most of whom are democratically elected to represent their constituents) are not obligated to support the candidate of their constituents' choice. A 1988 study confirmed that superdelegates are more likely than regular delegates to vote for candidates with Washington experience.

Having the support of superdelegates doesn't guarantee a candidate's nomination. Howard Dean's early superdelegate support in 2004 couldn't overwhelm John Kerry's popular support, but in close contests like the current one, superdelegates can be the deciding factor.

Each superdelegate will wield the equivalent of some 10,000 Democratic voters in 2008, a disparity in power that has no place in a democratic system that boasts "one person, one vote."

Superdelegates swim against the tide of democratic progress, progress that has been hard fought. The Founders did not entrust the choice of president to a popular election. The Constitution established that each state should determine how to select a slate of electors equal in numbers to its congressional

The original expectation was that those chosen would deliberate and make their own choices free from the influence of the common people. Instead, nearly all states allowed the selection of the electors to be determined by popular vote - but the will of the people was still not the law of the land.

Beginning in 1832, presidential candidates were nominated by their parties at national conventions. In virtually all elections from the 1830s through the 1890s, party politics firmly controlled most access to public office and many aspects of elections. Sometimes the balloting lasted for days, often deteriorating into near brawls as various interest groups negotiated backroom deals to promote their preferred candidates. In 1902, a Russian observer, Moisei Ostrogorski, called the American system of nominating conventions "a colossal travesty of popular institutions" and noted that less than 10 percent of the eligible voters participated in public caucus meetings at which voters chose convention delegates.

Wisconsin is considered the birthplace of the presidential primary. Under the leadership of Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, elected governor in 1900, Wisconsin became the first state to require that all candidates for public office be subject to a vote of the people. La Follette proudly observed, "No longer in Wisconsin will there stand between the voter and the official a political machine with a complicated system of caucuses and conventions, by the easy manipulation of which it thwarts the will of the voter and rules official conduct."

Other states quickly followed suit. By 1912, twelve states were holding presidential preference primaries. The following year the 17th amendment to the Constitution was adopted, establishing the direct election of senators.

With each step toward more authentic democracy, American voters proved themselves to be fully capable of making informed decisions about difficult choices. They also were able to abide by legitimately achieved majority rule, even when the margin of victory was razor-thin.

Superdelegates make a mockery of representative government. Even without them, the current presidential nominating process remains far from perfect. But at least regular delegates are, for the most part, bound to the candidates chosen by their state's voters. When queried in exit polls after the Texas and Ohio primary elections, almost two-thirds of those questioned favored letting Democratic voters choose their final candidate. To do otherwise is taking a giant step backward.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Robert W Smith - 3/23/2008

As a history buff, I have tried to read the postings for this site, off-and-on, for more than eight years. I say off-and-on because the viscerally extraordinary partisanship and lack of serious scholarship routinely presented here are staggering. Personal pique is offered up as insight upon historically significant, but not yet historical, events. This particular essay is no worse than what I have read in the past, and more's the tragedy. The quality of the entire entry was what I would expect to see in a rural high school newspaper. Full of passion, but lacking context, balance and understanding. But still, this sentence struck a nerve. “Superdelegates make a mockery of representative government.”
Is the author so unaware that the Democratic Party is a private organization? Does she not understand the distinction between the rules of a non-governmental body, such as political parties, and governmental institutions? Is she unaware of the difference between the operation of the Democratic Party and the U. S. Congress?
For someone who is held up as an authority – such as an Associate Professor – to write such a jeremiad, with no serious attempt to establish a balanced – dare I say it? – history of the process that the party went through after the disaster of the 1980 general election, to write at such a poor caliber, is again – and I know I am being redundant – disappointing.
I have no particular dog in this years primary fight. I am of the opposition. But organizational rules, derived through a process seeking public input, are the rules and have been for twenty-six years. To be perfectly honest, upon reflection, I believe that the benefits of the primary process are overblown. Most voters are “single-issue” motivated ingénues searching for their Pericles; they are of the moment, with no loyalty to the long-term values and goals of the larger party. When a candidate captures the hearts of these people with eloquent words, empty promises and offering the certainty of electability, they swoon. Then the brutality of a general election exposes to all the world that the man behind the curtain is nothing at all like his focus-grouped image. Did anyone truly believe the Senator John Kerry was a genuine war hero, who had , nevertheless, made his reputation vilifying his former comrades in arms? That the “draft challenged” governor of Arkansas was the best that the Democrats had to offer? That a one-term peanut farmer of a governor from Georgia was well qualified to be the nation’s Chief Executive? Conversely, caucuses are generally attended by people who have made a commitment to the party over a term of years. They are familiar with the candidates in a way the average non-participating, politically detached citizen will never be. Having spoken with them when cameras and microphones were not present, allowing them to see these individuals for who they were, they are better able to get their measure. They are aware of the strengths, and weaknesses, of the various candidates. And because they can speak to each other in private, they can hash out what they believe is best for the party. The nomination process is about finding the candidate who best represents the issues and interests of the party in such a way as to give them the best chance at winning. This was the process of Abraham Lincoln. Likewise Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy.
I have gone on too long. But I leave with a question: Does the author really believe that it is in the best interests of a political party to nominate their candidate using the same process we use to elect our class president?

Gary W. Daily - 3/18/2008

Will someone with some authority and clout in the Democratic party please recognize and submit to the inevitable? The superdelegates at the convention are going to decide this nomination.

And, by the way, who are these superdelegates? How long and in what capacity have they served the Democratic party? Do they not understand the “youth vote" because they don’t have “The Weakerthans” on their iPods? (Do they even own an iPod?) Do they not understand the "African-American vote" because they’ve never seen “The Birth of a Nation”? (Or Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song”?) Do they not understand the "gender vote" because they never heard of Robin Morgan? (Or Alice Paul, or Jeanette Rankin or Ida Husted Harper?)

It would be a good thing for every citizen voter to really know this stuff. However, it’s not a qualification, and quite possibly a hindrance, when it comes to the role of superdelegate. They are going to choose the Democratic party standard bearer and a choice based on electability and positions on issues–period--would be welcome. The rest of this stuff may be interesting to blow and bluster about online, but getting out of Iraq, providing health care for all, and recognizing the many faces of poverty in this country is what their choice should be about.

No one can argue with the observation that many, many voters in the primaries have demonstrated again and again that they are poorly informed about the issues, the candidates programs and about what the hell all this mess is about in Florida and Michigan. And that’s why there are superdelegates.

The Democrats lost their chance for true change when the media ignored John Edwards out of the race. But we still have a chance to make this election "historical" in the best sense of the concept. Obama/Clinton or Clinton/Obama - voters deserve this, the country needs this. Only the egos of the candidates and their supporters are keeping it from happening.

Read Obama’s lips, read Hillary’s lips, look into the mirror and read your own lips-- no one is ready to give up, sort out or compromise. Howard Dean and the party elders should act now and stem the flow of anger that leads to reprisal that ends up as apathy.