Democratic Party officials, desperate to present a unified front in advance of the all-important 2018 midterms, are working to revamp their presidential nominating process and erase the final vestiges of the bitter 2016 presidential primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The most significant, and divisive, step would involve reducing the role and power of superdelegates — the unpledged party insiders who are free to back any candidate regardless of how the public votes — before the 2020 election.
Their influence caused substantial tension two years ago when supporters of Sanders zeroed in on superdelegates as “undemocratic” and said they created an unfair and even rigged system favoring Clinton.
Now, party officials, including loyalists held over from both the Sanders and Clinton camps, are inching toward a compromise that would not only minimize the role of superdelegates but change the party’s operational structure as well.
The ideas on the table range from eliminating superdelegates altogether to reducing their numbers significantly — from more than 700 currently to about 280. Some officials said they preferred a proposal in which only elected government officials, and not party leaders, retain their superdelegate status.
The final agreement could be completed in late August, as party officials try to get their house in order and suppress talk of an continuing Clinton-Sanders divide within the Democratic National Committee.
“People are getting to a decent place,” said David Pepper, a committee member and the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I think there’s an understanding that if we spend all our time in this internal discussion — so much so that it becomes our external message — then we’ve become off message with voters.”
“This conversation needed to happen but it’s internal politics, and we need to get it over with,” Pepper said. “We need to move on.”
Liberal reformers have already won crucial concessions from DNC officials responsible for leading the party’s overhaul, including higher accountability standards for state parties and likely new rules for state primaries and caucuses aimed at increasing voter participation.
In the 2016 primary elections, “there was a lack of transparency that led people to create some conspiracy theories, and it’s useful that will likely go away now,” said Charlie Baker, the former chief operating officer of Clinton’s campaign and a member of the party’s post-2016 reform commission."
Larry Cohen, the former union president and chairman of “Our Revolution,” Sanders’ political arm, praised party leaders for following through on their commitments to reforms. His stance suggested that even the often-critical party outsiders who supported Sanders in the 2016 election have, to this point, largely been kept at bay by the DNC chairman, Tom Perez, and the vice chairman, Keith Ellison.
“This isn’t a repeat of other stuff,” Cohen said. “They are truly pushing to adopt these reforms and they’re in lock step.”
Yet even as party leaders try to orient Democratic committee members around shared priorities, fissures remain on some key areas of reform, especially the fate of superdelegates. Several DNC officials familiar with the negotiations said the Democrats most averse to change were state party officials and elected members of Congress who would stand to lose their coveted superdelegate status and the exclusive level of candidate access that often accompanies it.
Donna Brazile, the former DNC chairwoman and a member of the party’s important Rules and Bylaws committee, said she would not support a proposal that fully eradicated the superdelegate designation.
“We have to make sure that we do this in the right way, in the most responsible way, and superdelegates should be a part of that process,” she said.
“The way we’re framing this conversation right now, we’re discussing removing people from the table who actually set the menu,” Brazile added. “There’s multiple ways to get at this issue without telling everybody to go to hell. That’s unacceptable.”
Additional changes that will further reshape the 2020 presidential nominating process are also being discussed.
Perez has independently announced that he will set a presidential primary debate schedule much earlier in the nomination process to minimize the perception of bias. The change is another nod to the factions created by the 2016 election, when Sanders protested vehemently that the debate schedule disproportionately benefited Clinton.
DNC officials denied those claims at the time, but Perez has made creating an equitable primary season a top priority of his tenure.
To rebuild trust, officials will “ensure that no candidate participating in our presidential nominating process gains any unfair advantage — real or perceived — during our primary season,” Perez said in a 2017 message to party members. “We will decide the debate schedule in advance, instead of negotiating it after all our candidates have entered the race.”
Perez has also encouraged the DNC commissions that are drafting reforms to recommend changes that would streamline the process of registering to vote in primaries.
Of particular interest to Democratic leaders are state caucuses, which may now be required to accommodate absentee voting, incorporate paper ballots and publicly report statewide voter counts. States that use the traditional primary system may soon be forced to allow same-day registration for voters to register as Democrats.
The party’s rules committee will take up each issue in public forums held throughout the summer. The committee members, a collection of national, state and local DNC members well-versed in party logistics, are responsible for drafting specific reform language, which will later be presented to the full body of committee members for a final vote.
The plan is to have the process completed in time for the DNC summer meetings in Chicago in August, according to a committee spokesman, Michael Tyler.
The relative harmony is remarkable considering the vitriol that once existed between the two camps. Though Sanders remains publicly critical of Democrats at times and has opted not to formally join the party’s ranks, his supporters have worked alongside DNC loyalists in a reform process that each side characterized as constructive.
Those involved in the negotiations said the groups had been brought closer by a mutual disdain for President Donald Trump, and by their belief that this November’s midterm elections represent a can’t-miss opportunity to wipe out the party’s minority status on Capitol Hill and in statehouses across the country.
“Everyone is in agreement about what the North Star is here, it’s just working out nuts and bolts,” Tyler said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.