Superdelegates: subverting democracy?

In 1982, the Democratic Party created superdelegates to prevent future ambiguity over the presidential nomination, which had divided the party after the contentious convention of 1980. In 1984, superdelegates passed their first test by increasing Walter Mondale's lead and enabling him to amass the delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Because of proportional voting, superdelegates are a necessary entity to push one candidate over the edge in a tight race, like the current one between Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. But because superdelegates are unbound, and because there is no clear leader this year, they could potentially supersede the importance of the primaries if they swing to the second-place candidate.

If this sounds like the smoke-filled rooms of years ago, it's because superdelegates have the potential to be the modern equivalent. Now, instead of mysterious politicos pulling the strings, there are 796 superdelegates. While some are obscure, many are high-profile politicians including Democrats in Congress, in statehouses, former congressional leaders, and even Clinton's husband, Bill, but only because he's a former Democratic president. The rest of the superdelegates are party activists at the state and national level.

This vanguard may sound similar to the Electoral College, but superdelegates weren't created with the intention of subverting the democratic process. Instead, they were supposed to smooth out the process and avert confusion that occurs on the national level. Because superdelegates would make it possible to anoint a candidate regardless of Michigan and Florida, which were stripped of their delegates for moving their primaries up, future debate about seating their delegates would be less divisive.

The close race this year has meant a fight for superdelegates, unlike before when they didn't come into play until after the popular vote when they reaffirmed the people's choice. Now, each candidate is trying to use them to his/her advantage, with the two candidates disagreeing on the superdelegates' role in the process.

Obama, who is leading in popular vote and elected delegates, argues for superdelegates to reflect the majority. Clinton advocates independence for superdelegates, so that she can leapfrog into first. Clinton claims that superdelegates were designed to counter extreme activists who'd push for a candidate with no chance in the general election, except that Obama is not a fringe candidate. In fact, based on current polling, Obama appears more attractive to superdelegates because he has longer coattails with his appeal to independents.

Before March 4, Obama had been gaining momentum and superdelegates, but after holding ground in Ohio and Texas, Clinton may be able to convince superdelegates that had been abandoning ship to come back aboard as she reestablishes her legitimacy.

In all likelihood, Obama will win the nomination as superdelegates fulfill their purpose and put him over the hump. If a large enough portion feels that Obama lacks a mandate, and decide to vote for Clinton, neither candidate would have enough delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot. A second ballot would free elected delegates and the nominee would be the product of a brokered convention. This outcome would discount primary voters.

Short of changing to a winner-take-all format for the primaries, the process should be reformed to give superdelegates less autonomy. The system should be adjusted to bound superdelegates by national, state or district results, and party activists should be removed from the process. Superdelegates should strengthen the voice of the people, and not serve as a means to silence it.

Clinton has until the Puerto Rico primary on June 7 to capture the delegate lead, but if she can't, she should drop out to avoid splitting superdelegates and hurting the party.

Dave Lombardo is a junior political science major who regularly TIVOs C-SPAN2.

In