Why Maine Democrats can’t change who superdelegates choose

Democrats are again discussing the rules for choosing delegates to their national party convention. It used to be that primaries and caucuses didn’t choose many delegates but that changed for the 1972 nomination. Starting then, the vast majority of delegates came from the decisions of caucus goers and primary voters.

Lots of other things changed in 1972, including striving for greater demographic representation and doing away with proxy voting. Democrats prohibited the unit rule, a winner-take-all approach used by some states.

Later Democrats reserved a set of delegates, the superdelegates, who could decide for themselves which candidate they would vote for at the convention, and tweaked the delegate system many times. Superdelegates have never overturned majorities of pledged delegates but rather have magnified those majorities.

Right now it’s hard to imagine any set of remaining state primaries and caucuses preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee.

Clinton has won nearly 3.2 million more votes than Sanders and has a very significant lead in pledged delegates, the ones won from people participating in caucuses and primaries. Sanders would have to get nearly twice as many delegates as Clinton in the coming contests for him to win a majority of pledged delegates. Clinton also has the bulk of superdelegates.

Diane M. Russell (D-Portland)

Diane M. Russell (D-Portland)

In Maine, Rep. Diane Russell and superdelegate Troy Jackson, both of whom are Sanders backers, have criticized the superdelegate system and said they want changes for future presidential elections.

According to the Washington Post:

Maine state Rep. Diane Russell (D) is introducing a resolution at her party’s state convention in May to strongly urge that the votes of Maine’s superdelegates reflect the state’s popular vote in 2016, and in 2020 require them to vote as their state did.

Currently, of the 5 Maine superdelegates, 1 supports Sanders, 3 support Clinton and 1 has not stated a preference.

A country Maine Democratic Party resolution I’ve seen asks that the national convention delegate breakdown be 64.3% for Sanders, mirroring the statewide convention delegate count of 2,231 delegates for Sanders out of 3,470 delegates. (See note at the end regarding the formula for awarding these delegates.) Since there are 5 superdelegates for Maine, 3 would be required to vote for Sanders.

While there certainly could be rule changes in future contests, this year’s delegate system can’t be changed, including superdelegates.

1. The key reason is that this would go against the national Democratic party’s rules and Maine’s Democratic Party has agreed to follow those rules. 

You can see Maine’s promise in a provision on p. 21 of the Maine Democratic Party’s delegate selection plan. It’s in a section laying out what “Maine undertakes to ensure.”

One element is:

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In addition to setting out superdelegates as part of its rules, the national Democratic Party expressly prohibits mandating that any delegate vote against her or his beliefs.

This can be found in Article 9, Section 10 of the national party charter.

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Thus the Maine Democratic Party can’t require superdelegates to vote for anyone in particular. A resolution urging superdelegates to act in a particular way, of the sort Russell has discussed, does not set a requirement and so does not contradict that rule.

2. Moreover, it’s very hard to argue that it’s fair to change the rules in the middle of the nomination contest.

Typically when any competition begins, whether in sports, politics or any other field, participants know what the rules are and they compete to win according to those.

3. However, the Maine Democratic Party could encourage the national Democratic Party to create a commission to study the system and suggest future reforms.

One might think the Democratic National Convention would be the place where rule changes for future conventions are made. But that’s not how the process has worked.

As Professor Josh Putnam, probably the top scholar of American political parties’ delegate rules, notes:

Unlike their Republican counterparts, there is no baseline set of rules that emerges from one convention to guide the process (with some tweaks thereafter during the last two cycles) for the next cycle.

Instead, the Democratic National Committee through its Rules and Bylaws Committee has traditionally empowered a commission to reexamine the nomination rules and recommend changes to them in the time after the presidential election of one cycle. Those recommendations are then handed off to the Rules and Bylaws Committee to vote on and pass usually during the summer of the midterm election year between cycles.

Nothing, then, really happens rules-wise at the Democratic National Convention. Sure, there is a report on rules from the Rules and Bylaws Committee to the convention, and said Committee meets immediately after the convention, but any rules tinkering takes place well after the convention (or it traditionally has in the post-reform era). [source]

This approach allows for careful consideration of rules changes.

Frankly, it would be surprising if there weren’t some changes made for future years.

Whatever happens with superdelegates and with policies expressed in the national Democratic platform, it will led by people who involve themselves in the process. Maine’s Democrats can certainly play a part.


* A kind of technical note about state-level delegate selection:

Delegates to the Maine state Democratic convention, who participate in selecting delegates to the national convention, are allocated by the proportions won by candidates within municipalities.

But the number of delegates in each municipality isn’t just based on the town’s population or even the number of registered voters or caucus voters.

How does it work? Well, here’s the rule from page 6 of Maine’s Democratic party delegate selection plan.

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As you can see above, municipalities get a certain number of delegates to the state convention based on the municipality’s vote for the Democratic candidate candidate for governor. The number of delegates thus is a function both of population and that gubernatorial vote.

Here are few odd ways this can work out:

1. There can be two towns with the same exact population or caucus goers or registered Democrats but if Town A voted for the Democratic candidate for governor and Town B for the Republican or independent candidate, Town A will have more delegates.

2. At the same time, a very small town in a very Republican area with very few Democratic caucus goers would still get one delegate and one alternate.

As these two examples show, the number of delegates per candidate don’t directly mirror the proportions of caucus goers for each candidate statewide.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.