How “Super Delegates” Can Do Super Damage to America

Hady Amr
Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Hady Amr Former Brookings Expert

March 18, 2008

The 2008 US election season has proved to be one of the most vibrant in recent history. Something that should be good for America—and the watching world.

I was born in 1967—and I’ve never seen anything like it. True competitions in both parties, though with McCain now having clinched the Republican nomination, and Obama pulling slightly ahead of Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Across America, and indeed, across the world, Americans seem inspired by the genuine debate, genuine dialogue and the true choices being made by the American people across the country, state by state.

It is not only the candidates themselves that inspire—but the open and seemingly fair competition in the domain of ideals by which candidates vie for the vote of the people.

But with this genuine inspiration in the candidates and the debate, comes in increasing realization that the process is so confusing that not even leading media outlets have been able to accurately convey the story of the delegate count.

The reason? Confusing and differing rules for various procedures. Caucuses. Winner-take-all primaries. Various proportional representation primaries.

Having only worked on or with five U.S. Presidential campaigns in my career, I can say that the process required even myself to read the fine print. So how is the ordinary voter supposed to understand the process if campaign veterans and the nations media outlets can’t?

The real mind-bender for most is the notion of “super delegates”? But what are super delegates? Since Iowa, the voters in each state are electing delegates to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. At those conventions, not only do these elected delegates vote for their candidate of choice, but about one if five of the votes to be cast are to be cast by inside party hacks.

What? Say that again? Are un-elected party hacks really going to choose the Democratic Party nominee for the President of the United States? Yes they will.

Does this sound democratic? Does it sound like the will of the people is being served? Does this sound like the United States of American you grew up with? Well it sure doesn’t to me. In fact, if you were born before 1934 and turned 18 before 1952 when in the last truly brokered convention Adlai Stevenson prevailed in a deal brokered by Truman…it wasn’t the America you grew up in. That’s the last time insider party hacks truly determined the nominee of either party.

What has become clear is that the process by which Democrats and Republicans elect delegates does not match with the expectations of the American voters and American citizens for free and fair elections.

Further, when ordinary Americans can’t truly understand the process—because the rules are so complicated the media can barely explain them—how on earth are they supposed to truly participate in it? The truth is, they can’t.

In “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” it’s time to institute a change away from this Byzantine process and let the American people elect their party nominees. Elect them fairly. Elect them transparently. And even elect them through rules that they—the people—determine are free and fair.

But would election of the nominee for the Democratic Party by unelected super delegates really cause a fuss? You bet it would. In this election, when the American people will have donated more money than every before, in greater numbers than ever before, they’d have every right to be mad if their voice—and their vote—wasn’t respected. If this sounds like Florida 2000 all over again, well, it is, although in a different face. The bottom line would be that the archaic rules of the game determined the outcome of an election. Not the American people.

Even worse, at a time when the leading candidates have all pledged to restore credibility to the U.S., and improve America’s image abroad, almost nothing could do more damage to the shining idea that is America than a back-room selection of the Democratic nominee.

And so what should we do? For starters, both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should publicly make a joint call for Super Delegates not to vote—or just to vote to confirm the delegate count of the process. For either, winning through the votes of party hacks could easily doom their candidacy. Then it would nice to see the Democratic National Committee—and the Super Delegates themselves—also make this pledge to the American people. Imagine the revulsion Americans—Democrats, Republicans and independents—would feel towards the process if the party hacks decide who runs. Republicans should do the same.

And perhaps equally damaging for our country at this time, imagine the revulsion of the citizens of the world—now connected in virtually every corner through satellite TV and the internet—towards America. Instead of being a model of democracy, we’d look like a two-bit, corrupt sham. We’d be laughed out of the room by countries that were trying to advance democracy. Our credibility would be shot. Our foreign policy would suffer.

Alternatively, imagine the reaction of the world if we took this opportunity to bypass super delegates, and opened a public dialogue on new party nominee selection processes.

No less than the future standing of America in the world is at stake in this election. Those who aspire to lead America into the future should make bold moves now to ensure that this disaster cannot happen. They can. They should. But will they?