To gain and retain the support of voters — and as a matter of principle — the Democratic Party should be democratic in its operation as well as in its name. Yet some of the party’s operations have violated basic precepts of fairness as a bedrock of democracy. The credibility and prospects of the party diminish when the Democratic National Committee is widely understood to be operating with bias during the presidential nomination process.
In the course of choosing a nominee for president, the superdelegate system deprives voters of a level playing field and adds to the manipulation of pre-primary fundraising. Such procedures are apt to prematurely create the appearance of an inevitable nomination of one candidate over the others.
A special committee of the DNC, the Commission on Presidential Nominations, created superdelegates in the early 1980s to enable present and former elected Democratic officials and DNC leaders to automatically become delegates to the national convention — with the power to cast a nomination ballot for whichever candidate they wish, regardless of the results of any primaries or caucuses. The superdelegate system puts at a disadvantage the candidates who lack support from entrenched leadership.
At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, there were 712 superdelegates — 15 percent of the total delegates. According to the Sunlight Foundation, at least 63 of those superdelegates were registered as lobbyists at the federal or state level at some point, often for large corporations and other special interests. Meanwhile, superdelegates do not reflect the diversity of registered Democrats or the voters in party primaries and caucuses. While the party’s charter rightfully mandates that equal numbers of pledged delegates be male and female, at the 2016 convention a large majority of the superdelegates were men.
The system of superdelegates doesn’t just unfairly reduce the power of voters by giving disproportionate leverage over the nominating process to party officials. It also lends itself to manipulation of the process, helping to create an appearance of pre-primaries inevitability. By mid-November 2015 — fully 11 weeks before any state primary or caucus — Hillary Clinton had already gained a commitment of support from 50 percent of all superdelegates, 359 out of 712.
At the 2016 national convention, the Democratic Rules Committee voted to reduce the number of independently voting superdelegates by 60 percent beginning in 2020, but the new rule still needs to be formally approved by the DNC. Even if this plan were to be implemented, the remaining superdelegates would still represent a barrier to a democratic Democratic National Convention. The superdelegate system, by its very nature, undermines the vital precept of one person, one vote. The voting power of all superdelegates must end.
Secretary Clinton’s ability to accumulate a lopsided number of superdelegate commitments before the primaries was enhanced by a joint fundraising committee with the DNC and state parties, called the Hillary Victory Fund. That fund raised almost $530 million between July 1, 2015 and the last quarter of 2016, according to the FEC. The DNC’s partnership with the Hillary Victory Fund assisted her in gaining early loyalty of superdelegates.
In August 2015 — six months before the first vote was cast in any primary or caucus — the DNC worked directly with the Clinton Campaign and 32 state Democratic parties to implement the Hillary Victory Fund. The Hillary Victory Fund was made possible by the Supreme Court ruling in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC, decided in April 2014, which struck down aggregate limits on total giving to federal campaigns. Before the decision, the most an individual could have given to a joint fundraising committee was $123,200. After the decision, an individual could donate $356,100 to the Hillary Victory Fund in 2015 and the same amount again in 2016, for a total contribution of over $700,000 — and $1,400,000 if an equal amount were also donated in the spouse’s name. According to the agreements signed by the participating party committees, the Clinton Campaign got the first $2,700 of each donation, the DNC was to get the next $33,400, and the remainder was to be split among the 32 state parties. The arrangement turned out to be a raw deal for the state parties since the DNC ultimately used them as pass-throughs to funnel money back to the DNC for distribution to the Clinton Campaign or another Clinton PAC.
Essentially, the DNC-Clinton Campaign deal was an enticement for superdelegates from various states to get on the bandwagon early.
The joint funding agreement provided that the Hillary Victory Fund was to be administered by the Clinton Campaign’s own chief operating officer, Elizabeth Jones, who notably controlled how money was transferred to both the states and the DNC. Jones had the “sole discretion” to decide when transfers of money to and from the state parties would occur through the vehicle of a shared account, thereby facilitating the pass-throughs to the Clinton Campaign. Counsel for Bernie Sanders sent an open letter to the DNC stating that “joint committee funds, which are meant to be allocated proportionally among the participating committees, are being used to impermissibly subsidize [Hillary for America] through an over-reimbursement for campaign staffers and resources.” (The Sanders Campaign had a joint fundraising fund with the DNC, the Bernie Victory Fund, headed by the DNC’s chief financial officer, but its only funding was a $1,000 donation from the national committee.)
The Democratic Party’s national charter requires the DNC to be evenhanded in the presidential nominating process, but the DNC’s use of a joint fundraising committee that favored one candidate during the primary season violated this charter obligation.
Article 5, Section 4 of the charter states:
In the conduct and management of the affairs and procedures of the Democratic National Committee, particularly as they apply to the preparation and conduct of the presidential nominating process, the Chairperson shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness as between the Presidential candidates and campaigns. The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and evenhandedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process.
In June 2016, DNC donors, Sanders donors and registered Democrats filed a lawsuit against the DNC and its chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, alleging that the plaintiffs were injured when the defendants acted to tip the scales in Clinton’s favor during the primaries. Before a U.S. District Court dismissed the case for lack of standing in August 2017, statements in court by legal counsel for the defendants included remarkable and disturbing assertions: DNC officers claim that they are under no obligation to be fair or impartial during the nomination process.
In the record at the hearing on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, a DNC legal representative stated:
We could have voluntarily decided that, “Look, we’re gonna go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” That’s not the way it was done. But they could have. And that would have also been their right.
The DNC representative denied outright any duty to follow its Charter:
There’s no right to not have your candidate disadvantaged or have another candidate advantaged. There’s no contractual obligation here…it’s not a situation where a promise has been made that is an enforceable promise.
Those assertions from the DNC reflect a high-handed disrespect for basic elements of democracy within a party calling itself “Democratic.” That disrespect has been underscored by a series of events that began in the spring of 2016 when Donna Brazile, who was serving as DNC vice-chair as well as a CNN commentator at the time, passed on questions to the Clinton campaign that could give her an edge in an upcoming debate with Sanders. After the misconduct came to light, Brazile initially denied it, but CNN forced her resignation in October 2016. The DNC, however, had no problem keeping Brazile in her position as interim chair until February 2017, even after — in November 2016 — Brazile confessed to passing on questions to the Clinton camp. In the autumn of 2017, Brazile’s name was still the one attached to some DNC fundraising emails being sent out to millions of people, as though her failure of integrity and contempt for evenhandedness as a DNC officer was totally acceptable.
To sum up: The conduct of top officials at the Democratic National Committee — especially in the absence of any acknowledgement of past DNC wrongdoings or any binding commitments to end such improprieties — engenders no faith that they will act with integrity for a truly democratic process in the future.