2020 Democratic Convention — Unity and Reform Commission — Part 2

One of the issues in the last several primary cycles — for both parties — have been the role of unpledged delegates.  There are several reasons why both parties designate certain party officials (and on the Democratic side, elected officials) as automatic delegates.  First, it removes these individuals from the competition for the “regular” delegate slots making it easier for grassroots activists to compete for a delegate slot.   Second, these individuals have a slightly different perspective than the voters.  While everyone wants the party to win the White House, state party officials are also responsible for winning as many down ballot races as possible.  Elected officials want to win their own races.  As such, in theory, if the leading candidate seems too extreme or flawed, the unpledged delegates could swing the nomination to the second-placed candidate.   Before 2016, the Republicans decided to bind their automatic delegates based on primary results in their state.  After 2016, some Republicans might regret that their automatic delegates no longer had that power given the continuing fiasco that is Donald Trump.  However, in neither party, the automatic delegates have ultimately supported the candidate that won the most delegates; so this theoretical power has never been used.

Even though this power has never been used to change the result, many Democrats have wanted to reduce the power of the automatic delegates.  The resolution that created the Unity and Reform Commission mandated that, while elected officials (Senators, Representatives, Governors) and distinguished party leaders (e.g., former presidents, former DNC chairs, former speakers/caucus leaders) would remain unpledged, DNC members would be pledged in accordance with the primary results.  The task for the Unity and Reform Commission was to make recommendations as to how to handle this process.  First, the recommendations distinguish between DNC members who represent the states (state party chairs and the DNC members elected by the state parties) and other DNC members (at-large members and those who represent groups of elected officials).  The “state” members will be bound based on the state results; and the “national” DNC members will be bound based on the national results.

On the issue of exactly how to bind these automatic delegates, the Commission did not reach a final recommendation but, instead, suggested two alternatives.   The first would just pool the delegate votes with no individual votes on the first ballot.  The second would create a mechanism for assigning the automatic delegates to specific candidates based on the delegates personal wishes with some random mechanism if the personal preferences do not line up with the required allocation.   Unlike regular delegates, however, the automatic delegates would be absolutely bound to these allocations.

An issue that was not addressed in the recommendation but will need to be addressed by the rules and by-laws committee is what happens when candidates drop out and release their delegates.  Particularly in the early states, the third or fourth placed candidates might do well enough to be entitled to an automatic delegate vote.  For “regular” delegates, the delegate effectively becomes uncommitted when his/her candidate drops out.  If you go with the pooled process, that would cause problems with those votes being locked into candidates no longer running (making a deadlock slightly more likely).  On the other hand, if you pledge the automatic delegates, the automatic delegates will tend to volunteer to be pledged to the candidates who dropped out (retaining their independence).

One other recommendation may be problematic.  The commission recommended that automatic delegates who have a role in the election process should have to maintain the appearance of neutrality.  It’s unclear if this applies to anybody beyond the state chairs who have tended to stay neutral in the primary process.  To the extent that it applies to others, DNC members tend to be experienced activists — exactly the type of people whom a presidential candidate would want to be helping the campaign get organized in a state.  Excluding these people from getting on board early may hinder the candidate who actually wins the nomination.    However, the recommendation is somewhat vague and we will need to see what the RBC does with it.

Aside from the Trump cautionary note, one other caution.  Unlike the Republicans, the system that the Democratic party uses to allocate delegates makes it very difficult for a candidate to win a majority of the delegates.  In the past two cycles, two candidates have fought it out until the end.  If a third candidate stays in for a lengthy period and does not release delegates, the reduction in the number of unpledged delegates may result in no candidate getting to a majority on the first ballot.

The RBC will be spending the first half of the year re-writing the national rules to take into account these recommendations (and any other changes that the RBC members may want to change).  It will be interesting to see the final result.

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