Sanders-Clinton Commission Agrees on Changes to Make the Primaries More Open

A Sanders support in Iowa on Caucus Night negotiates the complex process that eventually led to a narrow but crucial Clinton win. That could all change by 2020. Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

For those longing for a continuation of the supposed Struggle for the Soul of the Democratic Party between 2016 supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the final meeting of the Democratic Unity Reform Commission may have been a disappointment. Members of the commission, appointed at last year’s Democratic convention for the purpose of addressing complaints by Sanders supporters that the nomination process was “rigged,” agreed unanimously on a set of changes that were not revolutionary, but will (if implemented) change the familiar landscape of the recent past.

One set of recommendations involved a part of the process that was originally intended to prevent the emergence of a disastrous nominee from the primaries: “superdelegates” (elected officials and DNC members) with convention votes not tied to any popular results. The commission agreed to reduce the number of “unbound” superdelegates by about 60 percent (others will still get a ticket to the convention, but will be bound by their state’s primary or caucus results like any other delegates). This result didn’t accomplish the Sandernista goal of abolishing superdelegates altogether, but was considered a sound compromise by those Sanders supporters who were interested in one.

Another recommendation dealt with Sanders’ complaints about “closed primaries” that kept independents — who went heavily for him in the 2016 contests — from participating. On this point the commission made another sensible compromise by recommending (the party has no real power to set rules for primaries, which are typically governed by state laws) same-day registration and re-registration opportunities so that indies can become instant Democrats. This reform was aimed at states — preeminently New York — that limit changes in party registration to a window that expires months before primaries.

Another set of recommendations involves transparency in the party’s own internal processes, especially those involving finances and arrangements with campaigns and consultants. This issue, of course, has arisen in conjunction with complaints — validated most recently by temporary DNC chair Donna Brazile — that the national party was in the tank for Hillary Clinton in 2016. After some wrangling, the commission reached an accommodation of both sides in the argument over the DNC’s behavior:

In the final recommendations, the commission proposed a 7-member Ombudsmen Council that included the elected chairs of the DNC’s 4 regional caucuses. 

The Budget and Finance Committee would also include elected DNC members, and all of its members would have to disclose their potential conflicts of interest. Any expenditure of over $100,000 a year to outside vendors or consultants would require committee approval. Its meetings would be open to any member of the DNC, as would the DNC’s budget materials.

But perhaps the recommendation that will be most resented (and perhaps resisted) involves rules for party-run caucuses, and would require significant changes in the way Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Caucus would operate. Here’s an anxious description of the proposed reforms from the Des Moines Register:

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucuses would break with decades of tradition in 2020 by allowing voters to cast absentee ballots and then releasing the raw total of votes won by each candidate….

Currently the Iowa caucuses (on the Democratic side of the aisle, at least) are complex and highly deliberative events where participants line up in “affinity groups” for candidates in an initial vote and then redivide after small groups are deemed “non-viable.” It’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to absentee voting. And it also makes “raw votes” relatively unimportant since the whole point is to create coalitions supporting delegates to a later state convention. In 2016, though, the refusal to report raw votes was thought to have perhaps denied Bernie Sanders a symbolic victory.

Taken together the two reforms would push Iowa Democrats toward the simpler process used by Iowa Republicans, who meet, sample some potluck offerings, hear a few speeches, vote on a presidential candidate, and then disband into the (usually) snowy night, with the results reported just like in a primary.

It’s important to understand that all these recommendations are just that:

The commission’s report now heads to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which will have a 6-month period to amend party rules to enact the reforms, and could theoretically try to dilute the commission’s recommendations (though they would have to run any changes by the commission). The roster of over 400 voting DNC members will also get to vote on the proposals at the full DNC meeting in the fall of 2018. 

So there’s plenty of time for backsliding — and backbiting, particularly among a minority of Sanders supporters who are still dissatisfied with the unity commission’s recommendations. But there’s a decent chance that by the time the 2020 presidential nominating contest rolls around, some of the stranger aspects of the process — especially in Iowa — will be changed for good.

Democrats Agree on Changes to Make the Primaries More Open