Lessons from the McGovern-Fraser Commission

Madison V. King
Dec 11, 2017 · 4 min read

In 1968, the Democratic Party held a convention that ended in utter disarray, with attendees splitting on large issues like the Vietnam War & the recently enacted Civil Rights Act. The election was largely decided by party-selected candidates instead of primaries. The major candidates during the early primaries were Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, who was famously assassinated just after the California primary. George McGovern, the Senator from South Dakota, launched a campaign with the intent to take Kennedy’s place in the race, despite only one primary remaining after California. McGovern aimed to claim the votes of all of Kennedy’s delegates, which were now unpledged. He eventually claimed about half, running up a last-minute total of 146.5 delegates. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was the eventual nominee, with 1759.25 delegates. Humphrey would eventually go on to lose the general election to Richard M. Nixon, largely thanks to Southern Democrats coalescing behind segregationist George Wallace.

During this convention, the delegates approved the establishment known formally as the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. Failed primary candidate and Sen. McGovern was appointed to lead this commission, which officially gained the nickname McGovern-Fraser Commission. The purpose of this commission was to design rules intended to broaden participation in the Democratic primary process, and the rules decided on by the commission would be implemented for the 1972 primary process. The 28 members of the commission were selected by DNC chairman and Senator Fred Harris (D-OK) and consisted entirely of anti-war party reformers, all supporters of Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

The commission’s final meetings were held on November 19th and 20th, 1969. The largest reform that was recommended by the commission was to strip party figures & elected officials from having votes in the primary process. This reform was partially rolled back after the losses of 1972. The second major reform recommended was that the Democratic National Committee could make demands of state parties with regards to the primary process, thus establishing the modern system of nationalized primary elections. These reforms encouraged participation in most voting demographics, most of all — white middle-class voters.

In 1971, after the majority of the commission’s rules were recommended, McGovern stepped down from the commission. Having used his power as commission chair to write the new rules that would decide the Democratic nomination, he launched a campaign for that nomination. Despite former nominee Hubert Humphrey winning 70,000 more votes than McGovern, McGovern was officially nominated largely thanks to a winner-take-all primary in California and the forceful replacement of an unaligned Illinois delegation with a McGovern-pledged one. Armed with the most left-wing Democratic platform until 2016, McGovern would go on to lose in the third-largest electoral landslide in US history to President Nixon.

Houston is McGovern country, except not really. Photo: Getty Images.

Why is all this relevant 40 years later?

Over the past two days — December 8th and 9th, 2017 — the Unity Reform Commission met in Washington, D.C. to publicly discuss & vote on primary reforms. The commission’s more vocal members (namely James Zogby (D-DC), Nina Turner (D-OH), Jeff Weaver (D-VA) and Nomiki Konst (?-NY)) have put forward amendments recommending stripping all unelected delegates, stripping power from state parties (including one proposal that would require any action requiring funds from a state party regardless of size to be approved by a public vote). The first major difference between the 1968 commission and the 2016 commission is that it’s members were selected by both major candidates (Secy. Clinton and Sen. Sanders) and by Chairman Tom Perez. However, Sanders’ appointments consist of partisans devoted to him rather than reform, and thus the Sanders-appointed members of the commission put forth the vast majority of amendments considered at these meetings (all but one of which were voted down).

With the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016, failed primary candidate Sen. Sanders has become the de facto face of the Democratic Party, much to the chagrin of a number of Democratic voters. According to internal Dem rumors, Sanders is gearing up to run again in 2020, this time with the backing of a major dark-money PAC established by him (“Our Revolution”).

Of course, the major difference between 1972 and 2020 is that we know how 1972 turned out. We don’t yet know how 2020 will turn out. However, as of right now, 2020 is looking a lot like 1972, and it’s up to us to stop it.

As a matter of coincidence, 1972 was Sanders’ first election. It was the first time he had ever voted, and he voted for only himself, reportedly leaving the top of the ticket blank.

This article was edited to correct a description of Our Revolution. The group was listed as a super PAC when it is a standard 501(c)(4) PAC.

Madison V. King is a Democratic volunteer and candidate from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. She is currently attending Slippery Rock University. She is on Twitter as @madisonvking.

Former Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania state representative. Volunteer for Hillary for Pennsylvania & O’Malley for President. Political scientist.

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