Maine Democrats’ elimination of superdelegates isn’t a blow for democracy

Maine Democrats’ elimination of superdelegates isn’t a blow for democracy

A rule change at a state party convention doesn’t usually get much press attention, but one at the Maine Democratic State Convention has been getting national press coverage (in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Post, and the Washington Examiner, among other places). Why? What were the Democrats fighting about at the state convention this past weekend?

Democracy, appropriately enough. According to Brigham McNaughton, of Freeport, the current system by which the Democratic National Committee nominates candidates is “” and defies “the will of rank and file Democrats.” Representative Diane Russell, of Portland, worried that the party’s nomination process could permanently alienate Mainers, “working class” ones in particular, from the Democratic Party and the entire American elections process (“When you tell people they should get out to vote, and then they do, and then they can’t trust the results of the vote, what’s the point of getting out to vote?”). In response to that crisis, Russell successfully introduced a rule change through the convention which will cripple the “superdelegate” process by 2020.

Voter disenfranchisement is an incredibly serious issue in American politics. In the three years since the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, state legislatures have all been explicitly targeting the votes of racial minorities, the poor, and the elderly for new restrictions. Any party rule change that combats that problem is on the side of the angels. Is that what we have here? What’s at issue in this case?

At the Maine Democratic caucus in March, Senator Bernie Sanders received a big win, roughly 64% of the vote, which will translate to 57% of Maine’s bound delegates (those who are officially pledged to support him and the portion of the electorate that cast their votes for him) at the Democratic National Convention. So 6% of the delegates you might expect to be bound to support Sanders are missing, which I believe translates to a couple of delegates (OK, 2.2 delegates, to be precise). I don’t know if working class Mainers would really refuse to participate in the democratic process because they feel that they should have another couple of delegates representing them in Philadelphia, but 6% is a big number in electoral politics. We’ve had general presidential elections decided by much less than that before.

Meanwhile, Secretary Hillary Clinton, who won 35% of the caucus vote, will have 8 bound delegates, (officially pledged to support her and the portion of the electorate that cast their votes for her), even though that 35% should entitle her to another two and a half delegates. That’s an even bigger missing percentage than the one afflicting Sanders; as far as I can tell, no Clinton voters are threatening to abandon the electoral process at this point, but you never know.

So what’s up? What happened to those missing delegates?

Maine has thirty delegates for the national convention; twenty-five of them are divided proportionally among any candidate who received more than fifteen percent of the vote, and the remaining five are “superdelegates,” delegates who are unbound to any particular candidate regardless of the outcome of their state primaries or caucuses. They are usually important party leaders and elected officials, and they are “unbound” specifically so that they can work as a fail-safe mechanism, stepping in should the party’s voters threaten to anoint another George McGovern or Jimmy Carter.

“Superdelegate” is a goofy name for a superannuated idea. The superdelegates are supposed to act with the best long-term strategic interests of the party in mind, potentially by throwing the presidential nomination to someone who didn’t win the most votes in the primaries. Of course, vetoing the clear choice of a majority of Democratic voters would guarantee a huge fight that would, at the very least, drive down voter participation rates, so the “super delegate coup” strategy is the kind of tool that only works as long as you don’t use it, like nuclear weapons. And now that increasing numbers of Democrats are talking about superdelegates as a corrupt form of anti-democratic politics, they really defeat their own purpose. They were a quick fix to what seemed like a potentially endemic problem back in the ‘70s, and they’ve become a problem for the party.

But they aren’t undemocratic, and they aren’t stealing votes from Democratic voters, Mainer, Millennial, working class, or otherwise.

In Philadelphia, twenty-five of Maine’s delegates will be acting under obligation to the Maine voters who supported Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton at the caucus. The voters who supported the overwhelming winner of the caucus will have a big majority of those delegates answering to them. If those voters want to abandon American electoral politics because they want still more delegates, good luck to them.

The other five delegates aren’t primarily answering to Maine caucus-goers. The primary constituent of Maine’s superdelegates is the party as a whole, including those Democrats who are underrepresented by the caucus system that produced those 64% and 35% outcomes — people with inflexible work schedules, or a lack of child care options, or no network of friends who are connected to the political process, or who just lack the remarkable resource of time — and who are less likely to have participated in it.

Representing those people is not an attack on democracy.

I’m writing this column on a brief family trip to North Carolina, where the state legislature occasionally takes time out from attacking transgender citizens to attacking the to vote for the poor, elderly, and non-white citizens.

Now, THAT’s what an undemocratic, rigged system looks like.

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.


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