Unless you are a political junkie, you may not know that something called the Unity Reform Commission has been meeting — yes, already — to write the rules for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating process. It should surprise no one that the commission’s deliberations have been enmeshed in lingering bitterness over the party’s 2016 nomination contest, and shaped by premature views of what rules would benefit potential candidates for 2020. So let me offer an alternative approach: Let’s focus reforms on making the Democratic Party nomination process more democratic.
Even if you believe (as I do) that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 nomination fair and square — because more than 3.7 million more people voted for her than for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and not because the process was “rigged” by “DNC favoritism” — you have to acknowledge that the complexity of the process fuels criticism that it was constructed by insiders, to advantage insiders.
The Unity Reform Commission’s charter calls for a process that is “more accessible, transparent and inclusive,” but it is also filled with caveats. Halfhearted reforms would be a mistake. Instead, it’s time for an overhaul around a core principle: The nominee should be democratically chosen by the broadest possible cross section of voters who can help elect the Democratic candidate.
That means first abolishing caucuses and using only primaries to pick convention delegates. (One exception can be made for the iconic Iowa caucuses.) The selection of a nominee should not be limited to those voters able to attend a caucus that may be inconvenient and lengthy, and that does not permit absentee or early voting. Caucuses lack the transparency of primaries, intimidate inexperienced voters and discriminate against voters of limited means, who should not have more barriers put in the way of their participation.
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They also are an affront to the idea of one person, one vote. On March 5, 2016, just 39,000 caucus-goers in Kansas got to allocate 33 convention delegates. Three days later, it took 221,000 voters in Mississippi to pick 36 delegates. Every 1,200 Kansas caucus-goers were represented by one delegate, but it took 6,800 Mississippians to have the same sway. Why? Why did 230,000 caucus-goers in Washington state get to elect 101 delegates, while 846,000 Maryland primary voters picked 95?
Second, Democratic presidential primaries should not be limited to Democrats only. Independent voters not affiliated with any party should be allowed to vote. Only members of other political parties should be barred. (Allowing Republicans to vote in the Democratic primaries could give rise to great mischief.) About half of the primaries and caucuses held by Democrats in 2016 were “closed,” meaning only registered Democrats could participate. What kind of message is sent to independents by a “not welcome” sign in the spring?
There is always speculation as to the ideological impact of including independents in the process. What is clear is this: A party that needs to open its doors wider should start by inviting the largest possible swath of voters to help pick its standard-bearer.
Finally, it is time for the “superdelegates” to lose their convention votes. Actual voters should pick Democrats’ next nominee, not current elected officials, retired officials or DNC members. These party leaders should come to the convention as nonvoting delegates.
The desire of some party leaders to hang on to their superdelegate votes is self-defeating. Superdelegates have never been decisive in the process. They have always ratified the choice of the primary voters.
The Democratic Party has done more to promote equality, participation and inclusion than any political party in the history of the world. It’s time to ensure that its most important task — picking the party’s nominee for president — is as democratic as possible.
Ronald A. Klain was an aide to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.