"I am a member of no organized political party — I am a Democrat."
— Will Rogers
The U.S. voting system depends on private political parties — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Conservative, and so on — to elect the nation’s public officials.
The United States Constitution looks to the states to appoint presidential electors “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” In turn, the states look to private political parties empowered to write and rewrite their own charters, by-laws, rules, and regulations.
Today, the most contentious changes are surely those being made by the Democrat party in selecting delegates to their presidential convention. Social engineering changes in delegate selection have left the party disorganized. Over the years, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has dropped its one person-one vote rule in favor of proportional representation (thus when Sen. Hillary Clinton won big states, Sen. Barack Obama scored nearly as many delegates). The DNC has gone as far as to take votes from one candidate to give to another (as in the Michigan primary resolution this year).
During the first four decades of the nation, presidential electors were selected according to state legislation and state legislators. Not until after 1824 did political conventions become the method of choosing party nominees. In 1901, Florida became the first state to pass legislation authorizing selection of convention delegates in primary elections. The Progressive Movement, founded in the early 1900s by such Republicans as Robert La Follette, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot, advocated primaries as a way to assure voter participation. Grass-roots voters selecting a party presidential nominee would not become a reality, though, until the middle of the 20th century, when 26 states held primaries.
In its early years, the Democratic Party did not have a formal set of convention rules, save the Two-Thirds Nominating Rule and the Unit Rule. The Two-Thirds Rule, abolished in 1936, required candidates for president and vice-president to win two-thirds of the delegate votes to be the party nominees. The Unit Rule, under which a majority of a delegation could cast the entire delegate vote for one candidate, was abolished in 1968.
McGovern-Fraser Commission and Its Successors
The disorganized 1968 Democrat convention was a public relations fiasco, with conflicts over delegate seating, public humiliation inside the convention hall, and lawlessness outside the hall. Following the defeat of their presidential candidate, the Democrats started planning ahead to civilize their 1972 convention. The DNC appointed U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., chairman of a Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection (the McGovern-Fraser Commission). Commissioner Don Fraser, D-Minn., was a U.S. congressman.
This became the first of a number of commissions, over a 30-year span, designated to assure equal representation to the many special interest groups within the Democrat party, appealing especially to young voters and minorities.
The McGovern-Fraser Commission was the first to recommend replacing winner-take-all allocations in primaries with delegate assignments based on past voting loyalty of congressional districts, precincts, and caucuses. To better represent women and minorities, districts that voted consistently for Democrats would be rewarded with a greater percentage of delegates.
Although proportional representation was designed to take power from the party bosses or “sachems,” convention delegate seats were assigned to party officials, elected officials, and selected party faithful, who would come to be known as superdelegates.
Senator McGovern used his knowledge of the new rules to become the Democrat party’s 1972 presidential nominee but was ignominiously defeated by Richard Nixon. In retrospect, the Democrats of 1972 appear as mobilized ideologues, avidly anti-war and Nixon haters — not unlike some Democrats today.
The 1972 presidential campaign brought into play “class” identification and “class” warfare, with limousine liberals and anti-war one-worlders turning the Democrat party sharply to the left. Some party professionals began to realize that they would need to wrest back control of the party, but it would take presidential defeats in 1972 and 1980 before party elders could start to reclaim their authority via Super Delegate voting.
In 1975, the DNC appointed a commission chaired by then Baltimore city Councilwoman Barbara Mikulski. The Mikulski Commission recommendations led to the 1976 Democrat party rules that replaced the demographic quotas of 1972 with affirmative requirements to increase the selection of women, Blacks, and other minorities as delegates.
When these rules actually decreased the number of minority delegates, a quota system for women delegates was re-instated. In addition, proportional representation assigned delegates for each candidate reflecting his or her share of the caucus or primary vote.
In 1980, the DNC appointed a commission chaired by Michigan state Democrat Chairman Morley Winograd. Known as the Winograd Commission, it recommended abolishing “loophole” primaries where winner-take-all balloting was still practiced. The DNC complied.
The commission introduced a new delegate selection rule conferring automatic unpledged delegate status on various party officials and elected and non-elected party functionaries to increase their participation in selecting the candidate. The bitter convention fight between Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and President Jimmy Carter at the 1980 convention helped elect Ronald Reagan and left the Democratic Party in disarray. Party elders increased their influence and sought to stabilize the constant change of delegate rules.
In 1982, the DNC appointed a Commission chaired by Governor Jim Hunt, D-N.C., to right the ship. The party bosses saw that primary anarchy was not winning elections. Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in November 1984.
Acting on recommendations of the Hunt Commission, the DNC had promoted party leader participation by increasing superdelegates, who were meant to be more experienced and moderate party officials, capable of cooling the passions of neophyte delegates. Superdelegates were meant to lead, not to follow (in contrast to today’s nervous superdelegates).
After assuring the priority of Iowa and New Hampshire in the primary calendar, the DNC approved a little-known option that allowed a presidential candidate to replace a disloyal delegate, even though the rule reads, “Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiment of those who elected them.”
Barack Obama would use this rule to replace elected members of Florida’s 2008 Democrat delegation.
For the 1988 convention, the DNC again expanded the number of uncommitted delegates (Democratic Party functionaries as well as elected officials) to serve as superdelegates. The 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 conventions were serene as far as delegate selection went, with only minor tweaking of delegate rules.
In 2000, the DNC determined the total number of pledged delegates for each state or other voting entity by means of a formula giving equal weight to population and state voting strength reflected in the past three presidential elections, a carryover from the McGovern-Fraser recommendations.
In 2005, the DNC heard that diversity and more diversity were needed to win the White House. Harold Ickes, a long-time Democrat guru, pressed for realignment of the order of state voting, voicing a concern that the “white” states of Iowa and New Hampshire did not reflect Democrat voters, among them Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Asian-Pacific Natives, and women.
The Nevada caucus and the South Carolina primary were moved up among the first states to caucus or hold primaries so as to add “diversity” to the early voting. The state legislatures of Florida and Michigan, not to be outdone, moved their respective state primaries ahead––in violation of DNC rules.
2008 Superdelegates and Proportional Representation
The 2008 delegate selection rules also were tweaked, introducing various proportional representation formulas. A non-discrimination measure (Rule 5) combined with an inclusion programs measure (Rule 7) added LGBT (sexual orientation) and people with disabilities to DNC affirmative action goals for delegate selection.
A national convention delegate Apportionment measure (Rule 8) provided a formula giving equal weight to total population and to the average of the vote for the Democratic candidates in the two most recent presidential elections.
Another formula gave equal weight to the vote for Democrat candidates in the most recent presidential and gubernatorial elections; and yet another gave equal weight to the average of the vote for the Democratic candidates in the two most recent presidential elections and to the Democratic Party registration or enrollment as of January 1, 2008.
Another formula gave one-third weight to each of the above-mentioned formulas. Seventy-five percent of each state’s base delegates were to be elected at the congressional district level or smaller, and 25 percent were to be elected at-large. Rule 13(c) required a presidential candidate to receive 15 percent of a district or caucus vote to be awarded delegates.
These changes in the delegate selection rules were the hallmark of Obama’s winning primary campaign. He combined caucus concentration (winning all but American Samoa) with selective campaigning in congressional districts that historically support Democratic presidential candidates — most of these districts have sizeable minority populations or tend to select minority delegates. Obama used the system to beat the frontrunner with extensive precinct-level research conducted by his head bean counter, Jeffery Berman.
The Democratic Party has been criticized for being more interested in political correctness and all-inclusiveness than in winning elections, managing only 12 years of Democrat presidents in the past 40 years, and Bill Clinton can thank Ross Perot for his 1992 win.
On May 30, 2008, Chicago TV Channel 5, WMAQ, ran a story entitled, "Obama Used Party Rule To Build Up Lead," in which the reporter said, “As part of the proportional system, Democrats award delegates based on statewide vote totals as well as results in individual congressional districts.
"The delegates, however, are not distributed evenly within a state, like they are in the Republican system. Under Democratic rules, congressional districts with a history of strong Democratic support for Democratic candidates are rewarded with more delegates than districts that are more Republican. Some districts packed with democratic voters can have as many as eight or nine delegates up for grabs, while more Republican districts in the same state have three or four.
"The system is designed to benefit candidates who do well among loyal Democratic constituencies, and none is more loyal than Black voters. Obama who would be the first Black candidate nominated by a major political party, has been winning 80 percent to 90 percent of the Black vote in most primaries, according to exit polls.”
Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard University professor, former Al Gore adviser, Democrat party intellectual, and DNC member, is writing a book on the Democrat nominating process. She has opined that “Black districts always have a larger number of delegates, because they are the highest performers for the Democratic Party.”
This is a major accomplishment for a minority constituting 12 percent-13 percent of the U.S. population. The Democrat slogan, "One Person — One Vote," no longer applies to Democrat primaries, where some votes are more equal than others.
In February 2008 Frank DeFilippo, of WBAL radio in Baltimore, commented on the convoluted Maryland Democrat primary: “Back in the bad old days, when politics was politics, the business of politicians was electing presidents, and the voters could vote for whomever they liked. Now they can’t even do that. Voters are now being told how to vote, and if they don’t vote according to the Democratic Party’s crazy-quilt formula, their errors of sexual or racial preference will be overridden by the imposition of at-large delegates . . . The Democratic Party today is a captive of its own rules. And it’s about as undemocratic as the Democratic Party can get.”
Political analysts agree that Obama took advantage of changes in DNC rules with skill and dexterity to best the competition. To the primary winner goes the nomination, but there is no place in the general election for the Democrats’ undemocratic maneuvers. In U.S. national elections, One Person — One Vote still stands, with no exceptions.
James H. Walsh is a former federal prosecutor.
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