When Democracy isn't Democratic: A Look at Superdelegates

What are Superdelegates and How Will They Impact the Election?

Hillary Clinton has more delegates than she has won

Photo from CBS News

Democracy, in theory, is pretty simple: people vote on what or who they want to represent them. In a simplified society, to win an election, a candidate would need at least 51 percent of the votes cast, to show that a majority of the voting population supported and wanted that candidate to represent them.

But this is America, and American Democracy can often be messy. In almost all of our important elections, (like a party’s presidential primary, for example), there are outside factors that control the results other than just who got the most votes. One of the most notable of these outside factors is the Electoral College. Several times now, but most notably in the 2000 presidential election, the Electoral College went with the candidate who actually did not receive the most votes from the American public. In 2000, George W Bush became president because he received the most votes from the Electoral College even though Al Gore received more votes from the population of America.

A similar type of system exists for both major parties as they go about choosing their nominee for the presidency. This system involves the selection of delegates. See, when a candidate is running for their party’s nomination, he or she isn’t trying to get the most votes; instead the goal is to win the most delegates. Rules on how these delegates are given out vary from state to state; some states are winner-takes-all, others award delegates proportionally, based on the number of votes a candidate received. Candidates win these delegates by getting their supporters to vote in their primaries or caucuses with all candidates trying to reach the magical number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. For this 2016 election cycle, the magic number for Democrats is 2,383; for Republicans, it’s 1,237.

There is also another step beyond that, and it’s something that isn’t talked about by either party because of its potential to sour voters on the concept of democracy. What I am referring to is the superdelagate system. Superdelegates can basically support whomever they want, even if their candidate of choice did not receive a majority of the votes. This system is basically a means for the party elites to have control over who actually becomes their nominee. It is basically the last ditch effort for the party to “right the ship” if the public is supporting a candidate whom party leaders fear would lose. While both parties technically have this system of elites handing out delegates to candidates they support, it matters a lot less for the Republicans this time around than it does the Democrats.

This is due to a few reasons: first, the Republican race is a lot more clear-cut than the Democratic one, with Donald Trump the obvious front-runner. Second, there are more candidates to distribute superdelegates among in Republican race this year, making it have less of an impact. And third and most importantly, only 7% of the Republican delegates are superdelegates, as opposed to the near 30% that are in the Democratic party.

What makes this election cycle so interesting, and potentially catastrophic, for the Democratic Party is that, while the race is tight among everyday Democratic voters, it is certainly not among the superdelagates. In a recent count by the Associated Press, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had an astounding 481-55 superdelagate lead over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet the race is much closer if the superdelegates are not counted. And that is where it becomes interesting. It is not completely inconceivable to see a future where, going into the Democratic National Convention, the race remains tight and yet Clinton emerges the victor via getting a vast majority of the super delegates - which are almost entirely made up of Democratic Party elites. 

If this were to happen, it would almost assuredly hand the White House to the Republicans come November. The anti-establishment sentiment in both parties is very strong. This is clear in the success both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been seeing.

True, if Hillary wins fair and square, most Bernie supporters will grudgingly fall in line and vote for her come November. If, however, the general feeling is that the establishment has cheated them (especially if Sanders either wins or comes close in the popular vote), Democrats should be very concerned that huge numbers of young voters, the vast majority of whom are staunch Democrats, might become disenfranchised and just not vote. In an election cycle where the Republicans have already shown themselves to be fired up, the Democrats will need every vote they can get.

On a deeper level, the idea that a candidate may be elected by a group of party elites instead of the voting public raises real questions about the state of the American democracy. That is drifting dangerously close toward an oligarchy and, in a system that already favors those who can contribute huge amounts of money toward campaigns, that’s not something either party should want.

The cynical among you might say that Clinton being chosen by superdelgates may be a good thing. Under the spotlight of the Democratic Convention, it would force the unfair system into the open and, if there was enough public outcry, perhaps force a change to the whole superdelegate mess. There certainly seems to be public outcry at the moment; young millennials are scandalized by the thought that their votes - their voices - will be completely ignored. The question is, would the Democratic base be willing to trade four years of a Republican in the White House for such a change?

No one can really know what is going to happen come November. One thing is for certain though: change is coming. Change in the voters and change in the way things are done. The two parties may have to bend further than the elites would like in order to avoid being swept away.