WASHINGTON — After the contentious primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party formed the Unity Reform Commission to make the nominating process more fair. This weekend, after four meetings over the course of seven months, the commission gathered for a final time to vote on proposals to change superdelegates, the caucus process, voter registration, and other rules.
The proposals, guided by the commission's official mandate, reflect a major change: They would effectively reduce the number of superdelegates by about 60%, require absentee voting and mandatory vote counts in caucuses, encourage states to allow same-day party and voter registration, and set new guidelines at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to ensure fairness and neutrality in a presidential race.
Throughout the two-day meeting here on Friday and Saturday, members of the 21-person commission were still finalizing language in the report, voting on last-minute amendments. The commission approved the report in full on Saturday afternoon.
Still, that doesn't mean the proposed changes are guaranteed. There's still a months-long, somewhat complicated process ahead before a final vote in 2018, cast by the DNC's 447 members. The result will either widen or help shrink the divide between grassroots progressives and the party — one that DNC chair Tom Perez has so far struggled to close.
Here’s what you need to know about the Unity Reform Commission, their proposed changes, and what happens after this weekend.
First, how’d we get here?
The Clinton–Sanders primary was a hard-fought contest of policy and message that few could have predicted: Sanders, a little-known US senator from Vermont and Democratic socialist, mounted a real challenge against Clinton, a candidate with all the donors and endorsements on her side, and he almost won.
The Clinton–Sanders primary will also be remembered as a race that exposed structural flaws in the nominating process and helped ignite a deep and bitter distrust among grassroots progressives toward the DNC and its leadership in Washington.
At points, Sanders campaigned as much against the party as against Clinton, raising questions about the debate process, superdelegate system, and closed primaries. In July 2016, WikiLeaks published hacked emails from the DNC that showed an internal bias against Sanders. By early 2017, as Democrats prepared to elect a new DNC chair, every major candidate agreed that the primary process had been unfair — and required a significant fix.
Enter the Unity Reform Commission.
Clinton and Sanders allies formed the commission at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Representatives from both camps — led by operatives such as Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, and Charlie Baker, Clinton's chief administrative officer — crafted a two-page resolution to establish the group.
Delegates unanimously approved the resolution on the floor of the convention. The resolution functions as the commission’s “mandate,” outlining specific changes to consider, as well as the process and timetable for making those changes — details hashed out at the convention as a kind of Clinton–Sanders compromise. The recommendations that were up for a vote this weekend largely reflect what's already in the mandate. This is key when it comes to the final vote in 2018. (More on that below.)
How did the Unity Reform Commission vote this weekend work?
On Friday and Saturday, members discussed each proposed change, and had the chance to introduce amendments to the final report. Votes took place on individual proposals. To pass, they needed a simple majority of the 21-member commission, which is made up of appointees chosen by Clinton, Sanders, and Perez.
Now that the final report is done, the next step in the process begins.
Based on which recommendations did and did not pass this weekend, the Unity Reform Commission will make revisions to their final report. The report then goes to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee. The Rules and Bylaws Committee then has six months to put together their own report of sorts — a proposal with specific language to change the rules as they currently exist in the DNC Charter and Bylaws. After that process has concluded, the Unity Reform Commission will review the Rules and Bylaws Committee report and decide if it sufficiently reflects their own report. If they decide it does not, the original Unity Reform Commission report will still go before DNC members for a vote. If they decide it does, then the Rules and Bylaws Committee report alone will go before DNC members for the final vote.
When will the final DNC vote take place?
Probably during the party's fall meeting in 2018. There is a chance the process could conclude sooner, and the vote could take place at the DNC's spring meeting instead. But most Democrats anticipate a fall vote.
At that point, the changes need two-thirds support to pass. That's about 295 DNC members.
The proposed changes fall into four main categories: superdelegates, caucuses, voting, and "party reform."
1. The big one: superdelegates.
The superdelegate system has been perhaps the most contentious topic of discussion among members of the Unity Reform Commission. It's also the area where activists and Sanders supporters want to see the biggest change.
Under the current system for choosing a Democratic nominee, candidates compete in primaries and caucuses, amassing a number "pledged delegates" tied to their performance. In 2016, the candidate to hit 2,382 delegates became the nominee. Apart from the delegates decided by voters, usually around 700 people, called superdelegates, get their own unpledged delegate to award to the candidate of their choosing, regardless of voters. Superdelegates are DNC members; Democratic governors, US senators, and members of Congress; and distinguished leaders like former presidents, vice presidents, and party chairs. Their unpledged delegates make up about 30% of the 2,382 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
The Unity Reform Commission has proposed a new system: The superdelegates who are elected officials and distinguished party leaders would remain unpledged delegates. In 2016, that group numbered 280 people, according to Vox. The rest, DNC members (there are 447), would keep the title of superdelegate, but their votes would be bound proportionally to the vote count in their states on the first ballot of voting at the convention. In the case of a second ballot, all superdelegates would be unbound.
The proposal would effectively eliminate about 60% of superdelegates, though not in name. (As you'll hear some Democrats joke, DNC members want to keep their lanyards.)
The idea is the same one agreed upon and proposed in the 2016 mandate. But the topic was still a source of debate this year among commission members. At the Unity Reform Commission meeting in October, one of the members leading the charge on superdelegates, former Nevada state assembly member Lucy Flores, voiced a concern about creating "two categories" of superdelegates — putting rank-and-file members and activists a step below elected officials. "Those voices should not be treated as any lesser than others," she told other commission members.
Hillary Clinton called them "creatures of the parties' extremes." Bernie Sanders won most of them in 2016. Iowa Democrats, who host the first caucus in the nominating process each year, are dead set on protecting the process. Still, many in the party agree that the caucus system could certainly be improved, particularly to make the process more accessible.
The Unity Reform Commission has put forward a few changes.
One is a measure to require absentee ballots in caucuses. The measure would address perhaps the biggest concerns about the caucus process, which are accessibility and flexibility. If voters can't show up in person to a caucus at the allotted time — because of work or family obligations — they cannot participate in the primary. Caucus absentee ballots are already available in Nebraska's Democratic caucus.
Another change: making total vote counts public. This would benefit candidates who may not meet what's called the "viability threshold" in each caucus, meaning they do not receive support from 15% of caucus attendees and are therefore disqualified, releasing their supporters to go caucus for a different candidate. In Iowa in 2016, for instance, Martin O'Malley did not receive enough support in many caucuses to meet the viability threshold, so he scored zero delegates. Under the new rule, that wouldn't change, but a vote count would show him with, say, 4% support, perhaps allowing him to point to some success and advance in the race.
Other proposals include same-day voter and party registration at caucuses, as well as requiring that votes are cast in writing at caucuses.
3. Voting Rules.
There is no language in the Unity Reform Commission report about mandating open primaries, which allow voters to participate in a primary regardless of party registration. But the commission has addressed concerns about states like New York, which make it difficult for voters to change their party registration at the last minute. Ahead of the 2016 primary there, the deadline was Oct. 9, 2015, almost 200 days before the primary. As Sanders and his aides saw it, they were missing out on a key voting bloc — 27% of eligible voters who had chosen to list themselves as independents and likely missed the registration deadline to participate in the Democratic primary. The commission proposed a system to penalize states like this, by docking their number of pledged delegates, should they not adjust deadlines.
4. "Party Reform."
This category is aimed broadly at making the Democratic National Committee more transparent and fair during presidential elections. Since 2016, the DNC has been a major source of resentment among progressives and Sanders supporters. Donna Brazile, the veteran Democrat who took over as interim DNC chair last year after the WikiLeaks scandal, reignited that fury last month with a new memoir, Hacks, which portrayed the primary as "rigged." In an explosive excerpt released in Politico, Brazile cited a joint fundraising agreement signed between Clinton and the DNC. That agreement gave her campaign some say in hiring and strategic decisions at the DNC before the start of the primary. (Sanders also had a joint fundraising agreement with the DNC, but his did not grant the same authority, nor did his campaign know about the terms of Clinton's agreement, former aides said.)
As such, the Unity Reform Commission added language to its final report to make joint fundraising agreements and related memoranda available to all campaigns.
They also tackled another concern raised by Brazile's book: that the same Democratic law firm, Perkins Coie LLP, represented both Clinton's campaign and the DNC, including in matters like joint fundraising agreements. "The nexus here of a single law firm representing both sides of the equation in the Clinton campaign and the DNC — that was completely unethical," former top Sanders aide Mark Longabaugh said after the release of Brazile's memoir. Weaver, the former campaign manager, similarly described the arrangement as an "obvious conflict." Perkins Coie declined to comment on the Brazile book, or the charges from Sanders allies.
The commission proposed a rule to prohibit vendors and consultants from working for a campaign and the DNC at the same time in scenarios where there might be a "dispute."
The commission also voted for a proposal to create an "Ombudsman Council" at the DNC, a new body to “impartially review and address any complaints or recommend improvements" around questions of fairness, neutrality, and transparency at the party. The council will be comprised of a designee selected by the DNC chair, the president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, the co-chairs of the Rules and Bylaws Committee, the chairs of the party's regional caucuses, along with others elected by DNC members "as needed."
So, will the changes actually pass in 2018? And will they be enough?
The Democrats involved know the stakes are high. Sanders voters in particular want to see the DNC take meaningful steps toward a fair process. Still, there is precedent for "reform" committees that begin with big promises and ultimately fall short.
The "Democratic Change Commission" — formed under DNC chair Tim Kaine after a drawn-out 2008 primary — moved to make similar changes to the superdelegate system, binding the votes to state results. By the time the proposal got to the Rules Committee, it was dead in the water. (Kaine, Clinton's vice presidential pick last year, said recently that he's "long believed" superdelegates should be eliminated.)
One concern here is that the final vote on reducing superdelegates comes down, in the end, to superdelegates themselves — the 447 DNC members who will either vote to strip themselves of power or keep it. But this time around, Unity Reform Commission members are more optimistic. They point to the mandate, which clearly lays out the proposed superdelegate system and was approved by delegates, including DNC members, on the floor of the convention last summer.
As Weaver put it at the last Unity Reform Commission meeting: "This was passed unanimously at the quadrennial Democratic National Convention, the highest authority in the Democratic Party — which means that every superdelegate, including all the DNC members and all the electeds, already voted for this."