Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Case for Super-Delegates

In his address to supporters, Bernie Sanders listed some objectives for his followers to work on in the years ahead. Many have merit, but a few deserve some second thought.

One of these is to abolish the system of super-delegates.

In the Democratic Party, about 85% of the delegates assigned the task of selecting the Party's next Presidential candidate are elected by people in primaries or caucuses. The remaining 15% are super-delegates - people who have been given a vote based on the fact that they have won an important public office (House of Representative, Senate, President, Governor), or a high-ranking position within the Party.

The primary argument against super-delegates is that they are undemocratic. They have the power to override the will of the majority as they have expressed it in their vote.

Yet, right next door, in the Republican Party, we have a living example of the merits of super-delegates. They provide a check against a wholly unqualified candidate getting the nomination - one with a potential to not only inflict significant damage to the Party, but who might get elected and inflict significant harm to the nation and the world.

Because the Republicans did not have a system of super-delegates, the nation itself is in peril - as is the global economy and world peace - with the potential election of Donald Trump.

We should note at the beginning that, in a vast majority of the cases, the super-delegate system will be a system not worth worrying about. If the super-delegates were ever going to decide an election against the will of the voters, it would have done so in 2008. There, the establishment candidate could have made the argument that she was the best, most qualified candidate, and she arguably even had a majority share of the popular vote. Yet, the super-delegates went with the popular choice.

In that case, the popular choice was a good choice.

What matters would be a case in which the popular choice is a Trump-like candidate; an entertainment figure adept at public manipulation but unfit to be President.

The idea that the popular vote should always prevail has long been known to have a significant problem - a tyranny of the majority. The majority is not always right. Sometimes, if is important to set up some sort of system to review the majority's decisions and judge if they actually make sense.

A principle that has been put into place in American politics is a system of checks and balances. No "branch" is given unbounded control over everything. Instead, each branch has an ability to nullify the work of a different branch. For example, the Supreme Court is an unelected, undemocratic check on the tyranny of the legislative and executive branches.

Super-delegates are not all-powerful. They have the ability to overturn a popular vote only if the popular vote is close. If the popular vote shows sufficient strength, then the super-delegates may not be able to override the will of the majority. They are useful only in a case of a relatively close election, and only to the degree that the super-delegates themselves are united.

Furthermore, the people have the power to influence and even select the super-delegates. As I have already mentioned, these are the people who have their status in virtue of having won a popular election or have been elected into a position of responsibility in the party. If the people wish to replace them, the people have the power to do so.

This has all of the earmarks of a system of checks and balances. Neither of the two groups - popularly elected delegates or super-delegates - has absolute power. Either can be checked and balanced by the other, under the appropriate circumstances.

This does not imply that the super-delegate system as it exists is perfect. We still have reason to ask some questions.

For example:

Is 15 percent the right size? Is it too big or too small? Remember, the 15 percent will often be divided - it does not vote as a solid block. If the popular elected candidates are supporting a Trump-like candidate, it would take substantial agreement among the super delegates to put a quality candidate in his place.

Is the selection criteria for picking super-delegates the best available? Perhaps, rather than draw super-delegates from the pool of successfully elected Democrats and office holders, a pool of super-delegates should be drawn instead from typically marginalized groups as a tool for protecting minority rights. It is, after all, one of the purposes of a system of checks and balances to protect from a tyranny of the majority.

Well, these are some thoughts. In short, I do not hold that Sanders and his supporters will be making any significant progress by ridding the Democratic party of super-delegates. Furthermore, if it does wish to rid the party of undemocratic institutions that not only have the potential but have the proven capacity to distort the will of the voters, it would focus on caucuses instead. Evidence abounds that this is the area where the will of the majority of the voters is most likely to be overridden by rules that keep a substantial number of potential voters from participating.


Anonymous said...

"Because the Republicans did not have a system of super-delegates, the nation itself is in peril - as is the global economy and world peace - with the potential election of Donald Trump."

Uh... Say what?

If the GOP had Superdelegates, Ted Cruz would likely be their nominee. I dunno about you, but I would consider that to be a far worse situation.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

No, actually, the mainstream Republicans disliked Cruz as much as Trump - perhaps more.