Democrats set to vote on major changes ahead of 2020 primary fight

Democrats are preparing to vote on some of the biggest changes in decades to the way the party operates and chooses its presidential nominee.

Coming off the divisive primary campaign between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, new rules on superdelegates, primary and caucus contests, and transparency are included in changes the full Democratic National Committee are part of the votes set for Saturday.

“Our reforms are all about the future. Our reforms are all about growing the Party,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez told CNN. “We grow the party by making sure we earn the trust of people.”

Change has been difficult and highly emotional for many members who have dedicated their lives by volunteering and working for the party to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. Members made passionate cases during debates, convincing some to change their minds from their original intended vote on both sides.

The biggest sticking point comes in a proposal that would reduce the perceived influence of superdelegates over the Democratic primary process. Superdelegates include party leaders and members who have automatic, unpledged votes at the convention.

Sanders supporters were angered by Clinton’s public support from hundreds of superdelegates before the primaries began in 2016 and felt that it created a perception of inevitability around Clinton’s nomination. Democrats acknowledge this has been a perception problem with superdelegates for decades and want to ensure all voters feel included during the next campaign.

Despite fervent arguments on both sides of the superdelegate reforms, there is a consensus here to unite around the outcome either way because the 2018 and 2020 elections are more important to them than disagreements over party rules.

The DNC voted at the 2016 convention to create a Unity Reform Commission to evaluate and recommend changes to the party, which included changes to superdelegates.

“The 2016 election was a very difficult election, not just the outcome which still stings but really the whole nominating process and division that it created,” said Ken Martin, the Minnesota DFL Chair who helped co-author the proposal, told CNN. “I think there’s many people like myself who hope that [this weekend] can heal those wounds… and finally the Democratic Party can start moving forward and not continuing to litigate these fights from 2016.”

If the new rules pass, superdelegates would no longer be able to vote for the party’s presidential nominee on the first ballot at the convention unless a candidate has earned enough pledged delegates to make up the majority. This removes any possibility that superdelegates could change the outcome of the vote on the first ballot, something which has not occurred since they were created in the 1980s but activists and some party leaders are concerned could happen in the future.

The last convention to go beyond the first ballot was 1952, but with so many potential candidates contemplating a run in 2020, the possibility for a contested convention seems more plausible than any in recent history.

Superdelegates would maintain full delegate privileges and be able to vote on all proceeding presidential ballots.

The biggest divide on the new superdelegate rules come from African-American members, cautious about any proposal that takes away partial voting rights.

Lorraine Miller, co-chair of the Rules and Bylaws Committee that wrote the new plan, explained the changes to the DNC’s Black Caucus with mixed reception, pointing out the representation of their own members on it.

“There are nine African-Americans on the Rules and Bylaws Committee,” she said of the committee made up of just 32 members. “The committee is nine of us, which shows the power that the African American community has garnered. …This party cannot win without us.”

One of the most prominent members of the Black Caucus, former DNC Chair Donna Brazile, who previously opposed these kinds of reform, abstained in the rules committee vote on the proposal. She was joined by former DNC Chair Don Fowler, who is leading the opposition to the change and working to bring it down during the final vote.

Fowler charges they are a form of voter disenfranchisement.

“Two hundred African Americans will not be able to vote in that convention,” along with hundreds of Hispanic, LGBT, and other members, including those with disabilities, he said in a speech to the Black Caucus Thursday. “Eliminating those people who have had the most difficulty in acquiring the vote seems just not reasonable.”

DNC member Michael Blake, who worked for President Barack Obama in the White House on African American outreach and engagement, refuted those charges.

“This is not disenfranchisement at all. The person that has their vote taken away and has been purged — that’s the person we need to be fighting for,” he said. “Voters want us to be listening to them, and this is a way to show that we are listening — to show that we are understanding the changes that had to be made after 2016.”

Democrats are confronting the frustration of voters, activists and members head-on as they prepare for the vote, holding an hours-long members-only meeting Friday to give everyone an opportunity to speak before the DNC and make their case.

“Tension brings progress,” said Nina Turner, a Unity Reform Commission member, Bernie Sanders supporter, and CNN Political Commentator. “I hear what they’re saying but I think it’s a false equivalency to compare superdelegates not getting the opportunity to vote on the first ballot of the presidential election for the DNC and real voter disenfranchisement that is happening every day in the real word.”

DNC leaders are cautiously optimistic about passing the rules, but the tepid support of the Black Caucus and others against the proposal is concerning both in terms of numbers but overall reception among the African-American community. The vote on Saturday is expected to be close.

Perez has personally spent more than 100 hours whipping the votes, according to DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa. He’s been meeting with state party chairs, making calls to members, speaking to outside groups like the Congressional Black Caucus and congressional leaders who will be affected by the change.

“This was a party that had a group of folks that seemed to have unequal power, and while superdelegates have never decided the outcome of any election, they’ve affected people’s sense of the fairness of the process,” Perez told CNN. “And that’s what we’re trying to change.”

Aware the vote will most likely be close, 33 state party chairs — who are superdelegates themselves — sent a letter to members stating their support for the new rules.

“We didn’t run for the prestige of being superdelegates. We don’t serve for the thrill of casting a vote at our national convention,” the letter said. “We do this hard, often thankless work, to help improve the lives of everyday Americans and fight for the values we share by electing Democrats.”

Superdelegates frustrated by the change point out that not only have they never changed the outcome of the presidential nominee vote, but they are also comprised of grassroots activists as well.

“Let’s think about what grassroots really means — we have a long road ahead,” Deb Kozikowski said to the rules committee Thursday. Kozikowski serves as vice chair of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, who noted her work in local politics for decades at the grassroots level.

Ultimately, members want to ensure they are in the strongest position possible to win the White House in 2020, which will mean strong support from minorities, grassroots activists like those who supported Sanders, and registered Democrats.

“I’m just tired of this quicksand we’ve been stuck in since 2016, and it’s time to find a way out,” one DNC member told CNN.

Members are eager to coalesce and know this is the beginning of the road if they are going to take back the White House.

“This is really a journey and we’re reaching a critical moment in a journey to grow our Party, to grow trust, to unite our Party,” Perez said. “That’s what this is all about.”