Democratic Primary “Reforms” Are Turning Out to be Very Un-Democratic

When it was first adopted at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the Unity Reform Commission sounded like a good idea. The primary had been one of the most contentious in history, with the Sanders side accusing the Clintonites of benefiting from party support, and Hillary voters frustrated at having their hard-earned victory tainted by the Berners’ cries of “rigged.” The logic at the time made a Unity Reform Commission (URC for short) a sensible attempt to move past the schisms between center-leftists and progressives.

The members of the URC were revealed last April – nine chosen by Hillary Clinton, seven by Sanders, three by DNC chair Tom Perez, and a chair and vice-chair chosen respectively by Clinton and Sanders. While Clinton and Perez declined to reveal all of their picks, Sanders revealed his, and they included a number of his most ardent supporters – TYT anchor Nomiki Konst, Our Revolution chairwoman Nina Turner, and Arab-American Institute head James Zogby. Democrats like myself raised eyebrows at these choices at the time, but I hoped that the proposals they put forth would be good ones. However, as they prepare to vote on them today, they look to be a big wet kiss to Sanders, who will no doubt take advantage of them should he run in the 2020 primary. Let’s take a look at why these reforms fall short.

The first major rule change would reduce the power of super delegates, officials within federal and state Democratic Parties who are allowed to vote for the nominee on the floor of the convention. These exist due to the rules changes following the infamous 1968 convention, where Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the nominee due to behind-the-scenes maneuvering of party bosses like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, despite never winning a single primary that year. Although they have proved contentious in the past, as in the protracted Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama primary in 2008, super delegates are essential in protecting the interest of minority voters, something which the Congressional Black Caucus argued in this letter from June 2016:

“The Democratic Members of the Congressional Black Caucus recently voted unanimously to oppose any suggestion or idea to eliminate the category of Unpledged Delegate to the Democratic National Convention…the Democratic Party benefits from the current system of unpledged delegates to the National Convention by virtue of rules that allow members of the House and Senate to be seated as a delegate without the burdensome necessity of competing against constituents for the honor of representing the state during the nominating process.”   

Thanks to the CBC’s forceful pushback, the URC’s proposal regarding super delegates would allow members of Congress and state Democratic officials (such as governors) to keep their super delegate vote. DNC officials who receive voting power will keep their titles, but have their votes proportionally bound to the vote count in their state. This represents the kind of sensible reform that the URC should pursue. While I strongly believe that we should keep super delegates, who have never once swayed a primary election in favor of one candidate, I think that binding their vote to the states in which they reside is a fair move. 

Unfortunately, I think a little less of the URC’s second proposal, which would strike out at state parties who don’t open their primaries to independent voters with same-day registration. Senator Sanders wrote about this in a Politico article last month:

“In contrast to Republicans, Democrats believe in making voting easier, not harder. We believe in universal and same-day voter registration and ending antiquated, arbitrary and discriminatory voter registration laws. These same principles must apply to our primaries. Our job must be to reach out to independents and to young people and bring them into the Democratic Party process. Independent voters are critical to general election victories. Locking them out of primaries is a pathway to failure.

“In that regard, it is absurd that New Yorkers must change their party registration six months before the Democratic primary in order to participate. Other states have similar, if not as onerous provisions.”

The problem is that it’s not up to the DNC to control what state parties do, it’s the states themselves. And singling out New York should not go unnoticed, since Sanders’ backers raised a lot of noise concerning that state’s primary. Some of it was warranted – thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby vs. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, Kings County (Brooklyn) purged 125,000 voters from its rolls. However, the Sanders campaign accused Clinton of supporting this purge, which mainly targeted African-American and Latino voters – i.e., people more likely to vote for her than him. 

I do not see the URC raising any concerns over this aspect of the primary – rather, they are focused on punishing New York for not having same-day voter registration for independents and possibly Republicans who want to cross over and vote Democrat. If they don’t implement this reform, the URC will reduce New York’s delegate count, or eliminate it outright. Could this be an act of revenge against the fact that Sanders lost New York? That’s a bit of a stretch, but penalizing them mainly for holding a closed primary seems unfair if you’re not committed to fixing the other problems in that state. 

Let me make one thing clear: I am not against the idea of same-day voter registration. I want, more than anything, to make it easier to vote in this country. But if the URC succeeds in voting this reform through, Democrats must be extremely vigilant, since this could lead to Republicans tampering in primaries that should be decided by Democrats. I worry that the people advocating this change may not have thought enough about that potential downside.

So we have one proposal that seems OK, and one that I’m skeptical about. It’s the third one that I’m most infuriated by, and it is one that the URC and Sanders himself have been shamelessly transparent over: strengthening caucuses over primaries. Going back to his piece in Politico, Sanders writes:

“In states that use caucuses, we must make it easier for working people and students to participate. While there is much to be said for bringing people together, face to face to discuss why they support the candidate of their choice, not everybody is able to participate because of work, child care or other obligations. A process must be developed that gives everyone the right to cast a vote even if they are not physically able to attend a caucus.

No, no, no. For those who value voting rights, caucuses should not be acceptable over primaries, ever. They disenfranchise thousands of people who can’t show up for hours on end to support their candidate due to prior commitments. If you want a sense of just how suppressive this process is, consider this: fewer people participated in all 17 Democratic caucuses in 2016 than the number of people who voted in the Wisconsin primary.

The DNC cannot stop states from holding caucuses, or, as in the case of Washington State, holding a caucus in addition to a primary, but it should be harder on states that prioritize their caucuses. We should always prioritize states that allow more people to vote, even if they’re as flawed as New York. Again, the DNC cannot directly control how states run their electoral process, they can only institute penalties if they do not meet a certain standard. And letting caucus states off the hook is something that should worry voting rights advocates everywhere. To give an example, take Washington state, which held a primary and a caucus. In the caucus, 220,000 people voted, and Sanders won; in the primary, 660,000 people voted, and Hillary Clinton won by six points. Clearly, the more open process should take priority, but Washington’s Democratic Party favored the caucus, sending delegates to the DNC that way. 

Sanders clearly favors caucuses because he did better in them – which means Sanders did better when the vote was suppressed. Those 220,000 voters who showed up for the Washington caucus only represent 5.8% of the state’s population, and most of the people who showed up were white. This lack of diversity and turnout prove how outdated caucuses are, and for the URC to champion them as a key part of the democratic process is a black mark against their efforts to reform the voting process.

With that having been said, this doesn’t mean that all these proposals are going to be implemented into the party platform right away. The URC first has to vote on them this weekend, and based on those votes, revise their final report, which will then be sent to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee on January 1st of next year. After they review it and put together their own report by next July, they will sent it back to the URC, who will compare the two reports and see if one reflects the other. If the discrepancies between the two are too large, they will take a vote next fall with all members of the DNC.

I urge all who care about the democratic process to stand against the proposed changes that would prioritize caucuses over primaries and penalize states unjustly for holding closed primaries. We must stand against the blatant favoritism towards Sanders that URC members like James Zogby and Nomiki Konst have expressed. People on the right and the very far left understand that when more people vote, their side loses. For them to meet in the middle on this crucial issue only proves how unsavory their agenda is. It must be stopped in its tracks before it can screw us over in 2020.