The 2016 Democratic presidential primary was in some ways as much as referendum on the nominating process as it was on the candidates themselves. A key committee at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia has now moved to curb the influence of so-called superdelegates on the primary process, and several Vermonters helped lead the push for the changes.
About 170 people spent more than 10 hours in a windowless conference room in downtown Philadelphia on Saturday. Sixty-nine of them had been chosen by Bernie Sanders to represent his campaign on what’s known as the Democratic Party’s Standing Committee on Rules.
“There were people in the hallway chanting, loudly, to end superdelegates altogether,” says Anthony Iarrapino, a Montpelier lawyer, and one of Sanders’ picks for the rules committee. “They just didn’t understand why you would have this class of delegate and give them this outsized responsibility or authority in the process.”
The role of superdelegates in the 2016 election became a flashpoint even before the first primary votes were cast. Superdelegates consist in part of elected officials, fundraisers and party bigwigs who get to vote for whichever candidate they choose, no matter the popular vote in the state they represent.
Sanders and his supporters say the system gives undue influence to insider elites. And on Saturday, they clashed for hours with Clinton’s picks to the rules committee over the future of superdelegates in the nominating process.
“People’s tempers were getting short on both sides, because it was just so frustrating that there was seemingly no genuine dialog, just people talking past them,” Iarrapino says.
The Sanders camp wasn’t able to convince their counterparts in the Clinton camp to do away with superdelegates entirely. But the committee approved a compromise, wherein a so-called "Unity Commission" will draft a plan to drastically reduce the number of superdelegates in time for the 2020 elections.
“It’s a much smaller group. It’s a change down from 700-plus, to 200-plus,” Iarrapino says. Iarrapino says Clinton’s representatives on the rules committee rejected several resolutions that would have done away with superdelegates altogether.
“What we Bernie people were trying to help them understand is the American people are skeptical of the Democratic Party and of establishment politics altogether,” Iarrapino says. “And if you don’t do something to tell them you’ve heard that skepticism, that you’re going to reform and make your party more inclusive and more transparent, that’s going to help Trump.”
The specifics of the new electoral regime, however, now rest in the hands of a yet-to-be named, 21-person commission that won’t produce a proposal for 18 months.
“You know, it’s not a done deal. This commission is going to need to be watched. People have to participate,” Iarrapino says.
Terje Anderson is one of the people who will be doing the watching. Anderson is a Montgomery resident and longtime political activist who in May was elected to serve as one of Vermont’s four representatives on the Democratic National Committee. That’s the group that will appoint the commission, and the one that will approve or deny its proposal.
“So my hope is that they have the time and the resources to get meaningful input from across the party, to listen to experts about what they say about some of those questions,” Anderson says.
Anderson says past commissions created by the DNC have yielded little in the way of meaningful reform. Anderson says he’s optimistic this time will be different.
“There’s a real sense that these issues have been floating out there long enough. They’ve been the subject of debate and controversy, that I think the party knows they need to at least address them and deal with them,” Anderson says.
The resolution to create the Unity Commission goes up for a final vote before the full Democratic convention on Monday.
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