Law Quarterly

50th Anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention Brings Changes to the Democratic Party

By Stephen Perez

Sep
27

“The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching,” chanted anti-war protesters on the streets of Chicago as they marched with the spirit of anti-war sentiment in their hearts.1 Chicago police, armed with tear gas and clubs, did everything in their power to prevent the protesters from interrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was a battle of old and new, establishment and anti-establishment. Within the convention, a split in the Democratic party over their platform on the Vietnam War matched the ferocity of the protesters outside. This August 26th marked the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and we are once again reminded of this battle.

A new battle has recently taken place within the Democratic party that could change the outcome of primary elections and shake the establishment that 1968 protesters longed to change. The Democratic National Committee has voted to reform the role of superdelegates in their presidential candidate selection process. Since the mid-19th century, both parties have held national conventions to select their candidate for president and vice-president. Eventually, primaries and caucuses were established to allow voters to select the candidate their delegate will vote for.2

In 1972, George McGovern won the democratic nomination but lost by a landslide to Republican candidate Richard Nixon. A similar occurrence took place when Jimmy Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan in 1980.3 Democratic party leaders had become frustrated with their losses and wanted more influence in choosing their presidential candidates. Here lies the birth of the superdelegate. Superdelegates are a group of about 700 activists, party leaders, and politicians that are free to back any candidate they want without taking into account how the public votes. They were created to bar future outsider candidates, like Carter and McGovern, from securing the candidacy but losing the election.

Efforts by Democrats like DNC chair Tom Perez and 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have resulted in a new reform that will bar superdelegates from voting in the first ballot, leaving the decision largely to the general public. “Today we demonstrated the values of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Perez said. “We want everyone to have a seat at the table. That’s what today is about.”4 This decision was largely influenced by the outcome of the 2016 primaries, where Hillary Clinton secured the majority of superdelegate support, allowing her to win states that Sanders had won the majority vote in.

Reform of superdelegates could not be done by state or federal government, as political parties are considered private entities. In the case of Democratic Party of United States v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follete (1980), the question at hand was whether or not states could compel a National Party Convention to allow delegates from their state if they were chosen by non-affiliated voters. Wisconsin allowed registered republicans to vote in a democratic primary. The court ruled in a majority 6-3 decision in favor of the Democratic Party, in that states could not compel parties to allow their delegates at national conventions because it “…would impair the right of political parties to associate with whom they wish, especially when non-party members could influence the interests of the delegates.”5 Cases like these not only emphasize the private nature of parties but also the autonomy of them. The reform of superdelegates was the result of a long process of planning and debate within the party.

While the Democratic party is a private entity that requires navigating its established bureaucracy for reform, this is not to deny the influence that protesters and others in the public sphere had on superdelegate reform. Selina Vickers, an activist from West Virginia, went on a hunger strike for over a week to push for superdelegate reform. When asked about why the Democratic Party is making these changes, Vickers said, “They’re doing this very strategically because they want to win, when people feel like their vote doesn’t count, they’re not going to turn out to vote.”6 She’s right. While this reform will aid in voter transparency and involvement, there’s no denying that it is a strategic play by the Democrats to secure a winning candidate.

By removing superdelegates from the first ballot, supporters of the reform argue that they will no longer be able to influence voter attitudes. Candidates will now have to pay more attention to influencing voting in primaries and caucuses. Critics of the superdelegate system have argued that it gave too much power to party insiders, and theoretically allow them to overturn the will of the voters.7 It is no surprise that superdelegates are upset about losing their influence. In a letter written to Tom Perez expressing his disapproval, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-LA., writes “One group should not be harmed at the expense of the other. To add insult to injury, it appears that this is a solution in search of a problem. Unelected delegates have never gone against the will of primary voters in picking Democratic presidential nominees.”8 African American caucus members like Richmond are wary of this reform because it could potentially remove the influence minority superdelegates have in making sure candidates fight for racial justice.

This decision is in line with the 1968 sentiment of shifting establishment and pushing reform. Reforming the role of superdelegates to allow for a more transparent candidate selection process is an important first step in creating a participatory democracy. Furthermore, we are seeing a sense of unity in the democratic party that reflects an important change from 1968, where the party was split along a clear line. While there is confidence that this is a good decision, representatives like Richmond that question it are imperative to ensuring that our democratic system stays open to all. Will this reform improve the face of the democratic voting process or are we better off sticking to the established system? Are we a step closer to achieving the ideal democracy? Only time will tell as to whether or not this reform will have the desired impact the Democratic party is looking for. The world is still watching.

Notes

  1. Neil Steinberg,“The Whole World Watched: 50 Years after the 1968 Chicago Convention,” Chicago Sun Times, August 17, 2018, https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/1968-democratic-national-convention-chicago-protests-riots-50th-anniversary/
  2. Boris Heersink, “The DNC Voted to Strip Superdelegates of their Powers.Will it Matter in 2020?” The Washington Post, September 4th, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/04/the-dnc-voted-to-strip-superdelegates-of-their-powers-will-it-matter-for-2020/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e6a27946d696
  3. Boris Heersink, The Washington Post
  4. Astead Herndon, “Democrats Overhaul Controversial Superdelegate System,” The New York Times, August 25th, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/us/politics/superdelegates-democrats-dnc.html?module=Uisil.
  5. “Democratic Party of United States v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette,” Oyez, Accessed September 11, 2018. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1980/79-1631.
  6. Alex Seitz-Wald, “Democratic Unity Disrupted Disrupted by Battle Over Bernie Sanders-Backed Superdelegate Plan,” nbcnews.com. August 24, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/democrats-vs-trump/democratic-unity-disrupted-battle-over-bernie-sanders-backed-super-delegate-n903606.
  7. Boris Heersink, The Washington Post
  8. Alex Seitz-Wald, nbcnews.com

Works Cited

“Democratic Party of United States v. Wisconsin ex rel. La Follette.” Oyez. Accessed September

11, 2018. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1980/79-1631.

Heersink, Boris. “The DNC Voted to Strip Superdelegates of their Powers. Will it Matter in

2020?” The Washington Post. September 4th, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/09/04/the-dnc-voted-to-strip-superdelegates-of-their-powers-will-it-matter-for-2020/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e6a27946d696

Herndon, Astead. “Democrats Overhaul Controversial Superdelegate System.” The New York

Times. August 25th, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/us/politics/superdelegates-democrats-dnc.html?module=Uisil

Herndon, Astead. “Democrats Take Major Step to Reduce Role of Superdelegates.” The New

York Times. July 11, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/11/us/politics/superdelegates-democratic-party.html?module=inline

Levy, Adam. “DNC Changes Superdelegate Rules in Presidential Nomination Process.” CNN

News. August 25th, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/25/politics/democrats-superdelegates-voting-changes/index.html

Seitz-Wald, Alex. “Democratic Unity Disrupted by Battle Over Bernie Sanders-Backed

Superdelegate Plan.” NBC News. August 24, 2018. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/democrats-vs-trump/democratic-unity-disrupted-battle-over-bernie-sanders-backed-super-delegate-n903606

Steinberg, Neil. “The Whole World Watched: 50 Years after the 1968 Chicago Convention.”

Chicago Sun Times. August 17, 2018. https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/1968-democratic-national-convention-chicago-protests-riots-50th-anniversary/

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