Why are superdelegates worth 10,000x your vote?
This past Tuesday, February 9th, New Hampshire residents cast their votes for presidential nominee.
Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders won soundly with 60% to Hillary Clinton’s 38%, which translates to 15 delegates for Sanders and 9 for Clinton in the nominating convention this July. Among Republicans, Donald Trump came in first with 35%, followed by John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush, which equals 10, 3, 2, and 2 delegates respectively in the GOP convention.
But there is another type of voter at these conventions not bound by this or any primary: superdelegates.
A superdelegate (also called an unpledged delegate) votes at the Democratic or Republican National Convention for any candidate he or she chooses, unbound by primary results.
In both parties, superdelegates are usually appointed party leaders or political officials. Sometimes confused with “faithless electors” in the Electoral College, the role of superdelegate only exists in the two presidential nominating conventions.
For the 2016 Democratic National Convention, there will be 713 superdelegates among 4,764 delegates total — just over a sixth of the overall vote count. A Democratic candidate needs 2,383 votes to win the nomination (right now, Clinton dominates the Democratic superdelegate field with around 360 pledges to Sanders’ 8.) On the Republican side, RNC delegates (superdelegate equivalents) make up slightly over 6% of the 2,472 delegates total. A Republican candidate needs 1,237 to win.
In contrast to superdelegates, pledged delegates are expected to vote according to the results of their state’s primary. However, even pledged delegates are not legally bound to vote for any particular candidate. These delegates are selected in state primaries based on their “pledged” preference, but may theoretically change their votes at the nominating convention. Convention rules ask only that a pledged delegate “in good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.”
Should superdelegates exist in our primary nominating conventions?
Superdelegates serve an important role in an imperfect system, guiding the nominating process to elect successful candidates in the general election.
After the bitter primary race between President Carter and Senator Kennedy in 1980, Democratic party leaders accurately noted that the nominating process was elevating candidates who went on to lose in the general election. The creation of superdelegates was an imperfect but acceptable solution to unite the party voice and allow leaders more of a guiding role in the process.
Jim Hunt, who led the commission that created the role, said at the time that superdelegates would be able, “in cases where the voters’ mandate is less than clear, to make a reasoned choice.” He was right. Historically, superdelegates have sided with the candidate who leads the regular vote — which makes sense, given the goal of a successful presidential candidate.
Superdelegates’ influence is only relevant in situations in which there is an essential tie among pledged delegates votes. In these cases, it is appropriate for party leaders’ views to apply.
Superdelegates hold an antiquated — yet not historic — role with too much influence on our presidential nominations.
In 1980, Congressional leadership sought “more flexibility” and changed nominating rules to give party leaders more influence — and in doing so, decreased the voice of the actual voters. Each superdelegate vote is now equivalent to approximately 10,000 citizens’ votes — and completely unaccountable to any opinion but their own. That’s not democracy, and should not exist in our primary system.
Further, these superdelegates’ opinions are not representative of the country’s. In fact, Harvard law professor Susan Estrich coined the term “superdelegate” in her analysis of the ways these delegates — which were and are overwhelmingly white and male — tip the scale toward specific statistically related views.
This is no small problem: superdelegates can be a deciding factor in a nomination, as they were in 2008 and may be again in this coming presidential election. It’s time to make sure no election is swayed by the unrepresentative views of so few.
- The New York Times’ analysis of the New Hampshire primary
- NPR’s piece on Clinton’s superdelegate lead over Sanders
- A Harvard professor’s history of superdelegates
- Vox’s explanation of superdelegates’ effect on the 2016 race
Put another way: the Short Version will set you up for a fun debate, no matter which side you’re on.
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