WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democratic Party's hierarchy on Saturday acknowledged the "perceived influence" of insiders over voters in picking a presidential nominee, but don't know yet how to settle an issue that bedeviled the bitter nomination fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016.
At issue is the role of Democratic National Committee members, elected officials and other party dignitaries — known collectively superdelegates at presidential conventions. They overwhelmingly favored Clinton, who won the nomination, though her wide advantage among this group ultimately saddled her with charges of favoritism.
The DNC, at its winter meeting, approved language that simply committed the party to reducing the "perceived influence" of those party leaders in the nominating process, a goal that both Clinton and Sanders endorsed during the 2016 convention.
How to do that — the DNC didn't say. The next chance comes this summer when a party committee digs into the matter again.
The dispute pits those Democrats who want to tie the nomination more exclusively to the voters' preferences and veteran party hands who want to maintain their sway and status in presidential politics.
The DNC chairman, Tom Perez, insists the party "will improve the democratic process" before 2020.
Along with changing superdelegate rules, the party is promising to retool of its system of nominating caucuses and primaries, with the goal of making them more accessible to voters, including newcomers to Democratic politics.
Perez frames the overall effort as necessary to prevent the resentments that weighed down Clinton in 2016.
"If we're going to win elections, you've got to earn the trust of voters, and many voters had a crisis of confidence in the Democratic Party," Perez told The Associated Press, adding that the notion of DNC players "putting their thumb on the scale" had "a lot of negative consequences."
Clinton issued a statement after the DNC vote praising the body for pursuing changes that would "ensure a greater role (for) primaries in our nominating process." She did not mention superdelegates, instead focusing on ideas such as same-day voter registration.
Superdelegates are convention delegates by virtue of some official post: DNC members, governors, members of Congress, party elders including past presidents and vice presidents, former national party leaders. Unlike pledged delegates whose ties to a specific candidate are mandated by the results of primaries and caucuses, superdelegates get to vote as they please.
At the 2016 convention, unpledged superdelegates accounted for about 15 percent of the all presidential nominating votes.
Clinton almost certainly wouldn't have needed any of them to become the nominee. She won at least 3 million more primary votes than Sanders nationally, giving her a clear lead among pledged delegates who made up the overwhelming majority of the votes at the Philadelphia convention.
Sanders' backers, however, cried foul over her strategy to rack up early superdelegate endorsements and claim a significant delegate lead before any primary or caucus ballots were cast. Adding to their outage was the postelection confirmation by longtime party players that the DNC made fundraising deals with Clinton's campaign before she was the nominee.
Some DNC members want to bar superdelegates altogether from the first convention ballot. That would mean a candidate would win the nomination with a majority of pledged delegates who are bound by voters' preferences.
More privately, other DNC members defend the existing system, saying they've earned the right through years of work in the party to have the freedom to vote how they please at the convention.
A special party commission last fall recommended a compromise.
The group, appointed by Sanders, Clinton and Perez, proposed tying most DNC members' nominating votes on the first convention ballot to the primary and caucus results. But elected officials who are convention delegates would retain their unpledged status. That irritated state party leaders who don't want elected officials to get special treatment.
The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee set aside that framework this week, opting instead for the generic endorsement of reducing superdelegates' "perceived influence." The committee will take up the matter again this summer.
Washington state's chairwoman, Tina Podlodowski, said any system that leaves unpledged superdelegates in place would expose the 2020 nominee to charges of illegitimacy, fair or not. "Take everybody out of the first ballot," Podlodowski said. "Make it fair and transparent. I don't want to spend the next two years having to explain and defend this process."
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