I’m sure you’re all aware of the possibility of a fight on the floor of the Democratic National Convention this year. You might have also heard about the outcry over the Bernie campaign’s delegate candidate shortlist for Democrats Abroad. I was not part of the delegate candidate approval process, but I was assumed to be by many people, so I put on my journalist hat to understand what happened and try and compile an unofficial but accurate response. Let me try and outline what I’ve figured out — bear with me, it’s long.
TL;DR (even this is long):
Did I make any of the decisions about the shortlist? No.
Was I on the shortlist? Yes.
Did I win a seat on the delegation? No.
Was it an ideal process? No.
Was it a legal process? Yes.
Was it the decision of the campaign? Yes.
Does it happen in most states? Yes.
Is there a risk to the nomination if it isn’t done? Yes.
Why? Pledged delegates can vote for anyone (unlike the Republican party, which guarantees the first round at least), and Democrats Abroad electors can simply declare their support for a candidate without any oversight, then elect delegates who aren’t actually supportive of the candidate.
Does that make people who were not on the shortlist feel better? Probably not, and I’m sorry about that.
How do we avoid this problem in the future? Reform the elector selection process and have better international coordination in the campaign.
First, let me point out the most important part of this: these are delegates of the campaign drawn from the body of Democrats Abroad. They are not delegates of Democrats Abroad drawn from the body of the campaign. This is an important distinction — and one that serves grassroots volunteers. However, in many cases, I was informed that they ‘belong to DA’ — many times being lectured or simply yelled at by members of the Democrats Abroad establishment. This is simply not correct.
Let us also, for a moment, step back and remember just what a ‘Pledged’ delegate is:
Under the Democratic Party’s Rules, pledged delegates are not legally ‘bound’ or required to vote according to their presidential preference on the first ballot at the Convention. Rather, these delegates are, pledged ‘in all good conscience [to] reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.’ [Rule 12.J]
— Source: Stacie Paxton, DNC Press Secretary. http://swampland.time.com/2008/02/19/pledged_delegates_vs_bound_del/
As a grassroots organisation, it was impossible for the Bernie Sanders campaign to know everyone on the worldwide list of possible delegate candidates. In fact, the official campaign provided very few resources (I’m aware of a voting centre lookup map and registration form on the website, a little bit of ad credit for Facebook, and a handful of official campaign email shots), there was no established international structure for approaching the worldwide vote, and the people who were working with the campaign were (and remain) volunteers. I do not know the selection criteria used in the approval process (although I suspect donor lists, being one of the few information sources the campaign had, were one), but I know the timeline to make the decision was not long, and was compounded by other races happening at the same time.
This is complicated by that fact that in Democrats Abroad — unlike most other state-level nominating contests, the campaign has no say in the make up of electors — the people voting on the list of delegate candidates. Electors simply declare their preference — in this race the electors list wasn’t finalised until two days before the convention. With no right of review or process to nominate electors there is the very real chance that they might represent the interests of the Hillary campaign. There is only one process available in order to make sure that delegates are loyal to Bernie — the candidate approval process (the shortlist). Whether this is a norm in the culture of Democrats Abroad or not is not really germane. It is the norm in all other delegate contests.
I asked a very simple question of one of the people who backed me into a corner at the convention: if you’re so worried about this, why not write it into the Delegate Selection Plan — the document that governs this whole process — that the campaign must allow all applicants to go through? The answer: it is against the rules of the DNC. Because (and this is my interpretation): that means the campaign could be represented by people who are actually for the other side, and could very well change the outcome of a tight race.
Let’s be clear: while the media is currently telling you Bernie has lost, there are challenges going on in many states, and lots of delegates left to vote for — this is still a very tight race, despite CNN’s opinion. And when you get, as we had, single members of the electors’ list controlling more than 10% of the vote, switching sides to influence the delegate count can be compelling.
What about affirmative action diversity criteria? It’s true that it was raised as a problem by the Affirmative Action Report, especially in the EMEA region. However, the Bernie campaign elected a higher percentage of people who satisfy Affirmative Action criteria than the Hillary campaign did, including one of the three delegates from EMEA. In fact, our delegation from the Bernie side is fairly diverse, representing African-Americans, Asian-Americans, LGBT, and disabilities. On the Hillary side, with only one cut to their list (and no complaints from anyone on Affirmative Action) they elected an alternate representing Native Americans — no other diversity criteria were met.
Let me be clear: I was on the EMEA shortlist, but even I didn’t have any clue about it before I got the confirmation email. As someone who volunteered full-time for approximately six months, organising both the London for Bernie efforts as co-coordinator (with the highest country turnout worldwide) and grassroots international efforts through both Expats for Sanders (with Paul Belanger, whom I’m happy to report got more votes than I did) and a list of 35+ regional grassroots groups, I was lucky enough to be known to the campaign. I expect there were people who didn’t make the shortlist who were also active, and I’m sorry about that.
Even with that, I didn’t expect to make the shortlist — I expected the shortlist to be cut to the minimum, given the nature of our grassroots efforts and the challenges of ensuring loyalty to the campaign. Even once the shortlist was announced, as a white heterosexual male, I fully expected to not be elected due to diversity criteria. Add to this that the campaign’s #1 goal was to elect Larry Sanders, and the possibility of winning a spot became microscopically slim. I do understand people are disappointed, but if the campaign sought any control over the members of the delegation, who are now free to cast their vote as they like, I don’t see any other solution.
So how do we avoid this problem in the future? Campaign approval of the elector list is one option — these are people who are already active in the political process of DA, and it should be easier for them to be known to the campaigns. Better organisation of the international vote by the campaign is also an option, and we have the beginnings of that possibility, at least on the progressive side, due to the work of our international volunteer efforts. But those are both structural changes, possible for 2020, but only obvious with the clarity of hindsight. Hopefully we’ll have until 2024 to worry about it. I’m open to other ideas — send them in.
BTW, in Republican elections, delegates are named by the campaigns without any electoral process whatsoever.