Democrats look to 2020 with proposals to change superdelegate and primary system

A party 'unity commission' has been working on reform proposals.

ByABC News
December 8, 2017, 10:32 AM

— -- A Democratic Party working group will meet in Washington, D.C. today and tomorrow to finalize a formal list of recommended reforms for the party.

By then end of this weekend the group called the "unity commission," which has been meeting for a year around the country, plans to have voted on and submitted a final document to all Democratic National Committee members.

Sources close to the commission who have seen working drafts of its current report tell ABC News the panel plans to recommend dramatic cuts to the individual voting power of superdelegates and new rules around caucuses and primaries to improve access for voters and recordkeeping.

The unity commission was created during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and tasked with devising a plan to limit the party’s total number of superdelegate votes by two-thirds.

Superdelegates are elected officials and party leaders who, in the past, have been free to support any candidate for the presidential nomination in contrast to pledged delegates who support candidates based on local popular vote results in each state's primary or caucus.

After Democrats' surprise and devastating loss in the presidential election last year, the commission’s work took on a new, broader purpose to analyze the party’s shortcomings and missteps as a whole.

Sources close to the commission say the group's likely recommendation on superdelegates will be for some select superdelegates such as Congress members, governors and former presidents to continue as unbound superdelegates, but to change the rest of the system so the votes of all other superdelegates are pooled or bound in another way to match up with to the popular vote totals from their respective states.

“One of the big problems you had in the 2016 election was that one candidate had 400 or more quote-unquote "delegates" before a single voter had cast a vote,” Sen. Bernie Sanders' former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told ABC News of the primary race between the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, and Sanders. Weaver now sits on the unity commission.

“So you had Iowa, which was basically a tie, and after New Hampshire the pledged delegates were close to even, but the reporting on TV was 400 for one [candidate] and 50 or 60 for the other candidate. It creates the perception of inevitability from the get-go,” Weaver said.

Sources tell ABC the group will also likely recommend that caucus states allow absentee voting, written votes to facilitate recounts, and record-keeping -- all of which would enable voters who can't participate in long caucus events to quickly write and submit a first-round vote and leave.

In addition, there will likely be recommendations that states report statewide vote totals. In the past, states had only been required to release final delegate totals and not popular vote totals, a practice that many say hurt underdog candidates in early states who may have won 6 or 8 percent of the vote statewide, but not enough to secure a delegate.

The panel is also expected to make recommendations for dramatic changes to how states run primaries.

Commission members appointed by Sanders largely lobbied for the party to mandate open primaries across the board. But that position, sources tell ABC News, was not the consensus of the majority of the commission.

Instead, as a compromise to open up the voting process to new party members, the group will likely suggest that the party penalize states that require residents to switch their party affiliation long before their scheduled primary. In the large, politically progressive state of New York, for example, independent voters who wanted to participate in the 2016 Democratic primary had to have changed their party status a full six months before the primary voting day.

The final document submitted from the group may also include language compelling states to allow same-day party registration.

Another hot topic for the group has been the issue of budget transparency and conflicts of interest. Some members on the unity commission have pushed a reform requiring the DNC chair to release a budget to members or the executive board, while others have pushed back arguing that the chair and his team need flexibility to make last-minute spending decisions without tipping off competitors.

Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democrats, called those arguments “silly,” and said she provides detailed profit-and-loss statements to her state party members.

“The nonsense that if you hand out a budget in March, that is somehow going to tip off an ad buy in November, is literally ridiculous,” Kleeb told ABC News over the phone. “We are not saying the DNC should send every single consideration of every single budget expenditure to DNC members. But a basic budget about where we are going to be spending money and which vendors we have chosen to do business with, that is what we are asking for.”

Kleeb and others have posited that the DNC has kept budget details under wraps because of potential conflict-of-interest concerns for members who are also being paid as consultants. That is another area likely to see reforms. Some sources say the final document from the commission will recommend that strategic consultants cannot represent both the party and individual candidates, especially during times when the two may be at odds.

While members of the working group have agreed the process has been collegial, most say it is just the first step to recovering and rebuilding their party.

“For me, reform is an ongoing process,” Kleeb added. “You can’t just do one document and think all of our problems are solved. We still have major rebuilding to do in the vast majority in our states in terms of having party structures that volunteers and candidates have confidence in.”

“But it is major step forward in terms of telling voters, 'We heard you,'" she said.

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