Superdelegates: A distortion of democracy
It seems the Democratic Party has a dangerously short memory.
Though their candidate for president lost his bid for the White House, while managing to win the popular vote, less than eight years ago, they seem intent on risking the same sort of outcome with the distribution of so-called superdelegates in determining their presidential nominee.
The delegate process is complex, and some might argue antiquated and irrelevant. Each state is appointed a certain number of delegates based upon population. Although the Republicans award all delegates from each state to the winner of the primary or caucus in that state, Democrats allocate proportionately based upon the popular vote. So if one candidate gets 60 percent of the vote, they get 60 percent of the delegates, and so on. The idea here is that, although it may mean it takes longer to determine a clear front-runner, Democrats believe that this system is more representative of the will of the people.
Superdelegates are party heavyweights, including members of congress, governors and the like, and their votes in the party nomination process count as much as a state delegate. So in short, one party official’s vote can be as powerful as that of an entire voting precinct. And whereas the state delegates are determined based upon the results of the primaries and caucuses, superdelegates can vote any way they want. They can come out publicly in favor of one candidate or another to help sway public opinion, and they can change allegiance as many times as they like up to the final vote on the party floor.
Historically, the role of the superdelegates has been minor, as most contenders are weeded out before they have a chance to vote at the party convention. However, in those rare cases such as the current Democratic nomination, they could play a significant role: even to the point of deciding who the nominee is, independent of popular voting.
There are two arguments used in support of maintaining the superdelegate system. First, there are those who suggest that the superdelegates are in place to help ensure that the “best interests” of the public are served. Though not explicitly stated, this suggests that the voting public may not be able to discern and lend support to those leaders who will serve their best interest. Aside from the highly subjective nature of the phrase “public’s best interests,” there is the matter of the perceived greater good versus the value placed on representative democracy.
Granted, there is the possibility that voters will select a candidate that leads us in a direction contrary to the greater benefit of the majority of American citizens. Some might even argue such choices have been made in the not-so-distant past. However, there is a name for the form of government wherein a privileged few govern in the best interests of the whole; it is an oligarchy. Though maintaining a superdelegate system is far from pure oligarchic rule, it certainly leans in this direction, and hardly embraces the spirit of representative democracy which we celebrate, at least rhetorically.
The second argument for superdelegates is to keep “un-electable” candidates from being nominated. Common reasoning can reveal the possibility that the darling of either political party may be too ideologically radical to secure the coveted independent and moderate votes necessary to win the White House. In fact, the superdelegate system was introduced prior to the democratic candidate nomination in 1984. At that time, Walter Mondale was competing against Gary Hart, who was considered by some as certain to lose the general election if nominated. Therefore the party gentry intervened, helping ensure that their tired and true candidate would prevail.
The result: Mondale won the party’s nomination, sure enough, and proceeded to lose 49 out of 50 states to Ronald Regan.
Though justifications are as plentiful as those who desire to lay claim to positions of power, the superdelegate system appears to be nothing but a thinly veiled effort to circumvent the system intended to empower the electorate to get involved. Though there is much lip-service paid to getting out the vote, a trumping of the public’s choice for democratic nominee would inflict significant long-term damage to the electoral process, disenfranchising yet another generation of would-be activists. Trust in the system would erode once again.
Ironically, those in charge of managing the party system that leads us to the final nominee are not elected. As appointed officials, we can only hope that they can see beyond their own short-term interests and desires to control the outcomes, as the “greater good” of the Democratic Party may depend on it. The only other option available to the rest of us may be to defect from the party all together, until the numbers are so lessened and their power so weakened that they have no option but to cede control, placing authority back into the hands of the public.