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Superdelegates Aren’t the Main Problem

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With superdelegates certain to play a role in the Democratic party presidential nomination and votes in Florida and Michigan not counting, there is a perception in some quarters that a miscarriage of democracy is occurring in the Democratic party. There would be – if the party was at all beholden to democratic principles. It’s not and the superdelegates are actually one of the least condemnable ways the party avoids democracy.

The most obvious anti-democratic action is the use of caucuses. First of all, the very specific time and very specific place of caucuses disenfranchise all the voters who happen to be working at that time or have childcare issues or simply can’t make it to the event. Additionally, most caucuses involve bargaining and arm-wringing before a final “decision” is made. An Iowa caucus goer who arrived wanting to vote for Bill Richardson and left having backed Hillary Clinton did not exactly have their vote counted. Caucuses do not represent the will of the people, they represent the negotiated decision of the few people able to show up and exhaust a several hours at a specific night and time.

Even without caucuses, states are free to apportion delegates as they see fit. Some states dole out delegates in proportion to votes cast. Others, like Texas, have a much more byzantine system that results in anything but one person, one vote. Complicating matters more, the national party can choose whether or not to seat state delegates, as in the case of Florida and Michigan. This is all perfectly legal because, again, political parties are not democracies.

Nor should they be. Parties are an apparatus. They get names on ballots, they provide guidelines for members and they dispense money for organizational efforts like getting members elected. Parties are just organizations and like Microsoft, McDonald’s, the NAACP or any other large organization they are not subject to democratic principles when making internal decisions. Sure, government bodies might regulate aspects of the primary system but the ultimate utilization of that system is left up to the parties.

At some point, the parties decided to allow the rank-and-file members to have a say in how the party is run. Heck, some state parties even allow non members to have a say in how the party is run (through the use of open primaries). That’s nice of them but it doesn’t require the party to weight the rank-and-file vote as much as the vote of major party members.

Wanting the “will of the people” to prevail is a noble sentiment but look at it this way: why should the vote of some cross-over voter in Texas influence the party as much as the opinion of, say, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives or the Governor of Tennessee or any other elected party member who has given the party years of service? The superdelegates aren’t some random bunch of Americans. They’re the most important figures within the organization. There is no reason to expect them to abdicate their vote just because the pledged delegate count is leaning one way or the other – particularly when you consider how many of those pledged delegates came from undemocratic caucuses, open primaries and states with crazy apportionment systems.

This isn’t, mind you, a justification for a Hillary Clinton nomination. If she were to take the lead in pledged delegates, I’d make the same point. Instead, this is an argument as to why the superdelegates are hardly the least undemocratic aspect of the Democratic party’s organization. Those concerned with making the presidential selection process more democratic (a cause I support, mind you) should focus more on abolishing the use of caucuses and asymmetrical apportionment systems than on minimizing the importance of votes given to the party’s top members.

We only have two real parties. There’s nothing wrong with wanting those parties to operate with the same commitment to democracy as our government itself. But achieving that end will take a lot more than pressuring superdelegates to fall in line behind delegate counts that aren’t even accurate representations of the will of the people.