Time for another Democratic Presidential Nomination Rules Commission

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Senator Bernie Sanders certainly can’t seriously complain that there was anything “rigged” about the Democratic nomination – delegate selection procedures.  Clinton won by a margin of almost 4 million popular votes and a substantial majority of all elected pledged delegates in the primaries and caucuses and in DC. 

Sanders and many of his supporters appear to want to change the rules at the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.  I believe that is the wrong place to enact new rules governing the 2020 process.  Instead, we should follow past precedent and the convention should endorse the appointment of a broad-based “reform commission,” composed of grassroots Democrats and party and elected officials to evaluate and recommend future rules changes.

For example, in 1982, the party reform commission headed by then Democratic Governor James Hunt of North Carolina recommended the establishment of unpledged “super delegates,” comprised of all Democratic governors, members of congress, and DNC members and other party notables.  Those recommendations were adopted by the Democratic National Committee and thus began the use of super delegates beginning at the 1984 convention and since. 

I was a member of the Democratic National Committee in 1982 and voted in favor of establishing super delegates.  My major reason was recognizing that our national convention needed more governors and members of congress as delegates at the national convention, since they represent hundreds of thousands, even millions, of diverse voters.   But I also favored, as did most other DNC members, limiting their numbers.  At the 2016 convention, Super delegates presently constitute only 15 percent of the total number of delegates at the 2016 convention.  And at no convention since they were established in 1982 have most super delegates failed to support the candidate with the highest popular vote and majority of elected pledged delegates; and at none did they provide the margin of difference. 

But Senator Sanders and many of his supporters sees super delegates as undemocratic, since they can ignore the will of the voters of their states or congressional districts if they wish.  Perhaps a new reform commission will decide to reduce the numbers of super delegates or increase the numbers of elected pledged delegates, or both, as a compromise.   

Sanders and many of his supporters also want future primaries and caucuses to be “open” – i.e., non- Democrats, such as Independents or even Republicans who register on Election Day, to be able to vote.  They argue that would encourage independents to support the party nominee. 

But many Democrats (myself included) believe the party system needs to be strengthened, not weakened, and registered Democrats should be the only ones who vote for the party’s nominee.  Perhaps a new reform commission would find a compromise to allow registration as Democrats closer to the actual primary or caucus day than is currently the case in many states.

A third rule change under discussion is to ban caucuses and require all states to use primary elections to select delegates.  The argument in favor of this is that caucuses tend to favor party activists who have the time to sit for hours and then declare their vote openly – without a secret ballot.  Thus they tend to disadvantage the elderly, minority voters, and working people who aren’t able to spend that much time in the evening to vote and who don’t like the idea of giving up their preference for a secret ballot.  

I would hope, however, that the special place of Iowa and Nevada as the first two caucus states be preserved.  These first two caucuses require all presidential candidates in the early months to do retail, one-on-one personal campaigning.  They have become an important part of our democratic process. 

The main point:  Trying to make decisions on new rules for the 2020 nomination elections and beyond at the 2016 convention would be unwise.  It could produce a divisive floor fight on procedural issues not of major concern to most Americans. 

Far better would be to follow precedent going back more than 50 years and pass a resolution establishing another reform commission.  That way a united convention can focus its attention on what Democrats consider to be most important: electing Hillary Clinton as our next and first female president in U.S. history and uniting around the need to defeat Donald Trump.

Lanny Davis is a regular weekly columnist for The Hill. In 1996-98, Davis served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton. He attended Yale Law School with Hillary Clinton in 1969-70 and has remained friends with her ever since. He is the author of the book, "Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life," (Simon & Schuster March 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LannyDavis.