Superdelegates: An Obstacle on the Road to Democratic Elections

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.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.

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 representation.

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.

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).

March, 2008