When She Ran, Vol. 2 by Joshua Watkins

Equal Power, Then and Now: Geraldine Ferraro and The Feminist Case Against (And For) Superdelegates

Welcome to When She Ran, a GirlSense and NonSense series to celebrate female leadership in the political realm during Women’s History Month. For candidates and voters alike, women’s issues have been at the forefront of the 2016 presidential election, ranging from reproductive rights to equal pay to confronting what it means to be a feminist. But as campaign history shows, 2016 is far from alone.

After Bernie Sanders’ resounding win in the New Hampshire Democratic Party earlier this year, many were outraged when it was reported that Hillary Clinton would walk away with more delegates, despite receiving over 20% less of the vote, due to the inclusion of superdelegates, or elite party officials who are unbound in how they vote at the Democratic National Convention by their state’s primary results. Of course, political junkies will recall that this outrage is nothing new—in 2008, many expressed concerns that superdelegates that had pledged themselves to Clinton would deny Barack Obama the nomination, despite his receiving a larger share of the popular vote. (Clearly, these concerns were unfounded, as many superdelegates switched their support to Obama to reflect the will of the Democratic electorate.)

What is less remembered in history, however, is how this seemingly “undemocratic” practice came to be. In the decade since moving toward a public primary process, the Democratic Party had accomplished two things: nominating a definitive loser (McGovern in ’72) and a believed-to-be failed president (Carter in ’76). Believing that the reforms implemented to bind a state’s delegates to the outcome of its presidential preference contest, in 1980 the House Democratic Caucus asked a party commission to elect a portion of its members as uncommitted voting delegates. As Representative Gillis Long, chairman of the caucus, argued: “We in the House, as the last vestige of Democratic control at the national level, believe we have a special responsibility to develop new innovative approaches that respond to our party’s constituencies.”

The Hunt Commission, which heard the proposal, ultimately called for 30 percent of the next convention, in 1984, to be composed of unbound delegates, party leaders and elected officials who could enter as uncommitted, arguing that flexibility should exist for changing circumstances or an unclear voter mandate. Though backed by the AFL-CIO and the Democratic State Chairs Association, the 30 percent proposal found fierce opposition from feminist groups. As Susan Estrich, a member of the Technical Advisory Committee, argued, these new unbound delegates would be drawn from party officials, meaning that they would overwhelmingly be white males. Although affirmative action reforms mandated the convention be comprised of equal numbers of males and females, equal numbers would not mean there was equal power among the sexes. Male party leaders with more flexibility than females committed to candidates based on state results would hold greater power in the choice of a nominee—hence the term “super” delegates.

It was Representative Geraldine Ferraro, who went on to become the first female vice presidential nominee for a major party in 1984, who found compromise between House Democrats and vocal feminist groups. As a loyal member of the House Democratic Caucus proposing the creation of superdelegates, but also considered a leading feminist, Ferraro was conflicted. After tense negotiations, mostly revolving around if the superdelegates would be selected by Congress or state party committees, the party emerged with “the Ferraro plan,” which reduced the number of proposed superdelegates to 566, or 14.1%, of the total, but left selection of the delegates to the House and Senate rather than state parties. In doing so, Ferraro helped her party avoid a gross imbalance of power between men and women, but still allowed members of Congress to endorse whomever they pleased.

At the time, the case against superdelegates on feminist grounds was clear, compelling, and ultimately successful. But do the same concerns exist now?

At first glance on the congressional level, elected representatives are still overwhelmingly male, with only 20% of both the House and Senate comprised of female legislators, making the equal power argument appealing. But within the Democratic Party, roughly 40 percent of House members and 45% of Senators are female. With superdelegates now expanded to include state party officials and senior members of the Democratic National Committee, the numbers alone are almost equal—or at least within striking distance.

But on a more theoretical level, those who take issue with the superdelegate process should consider what they are asking these officials to do. (These people should also consider why their limited participation and lack of loyalty to and for the party warrants their demands hold more weight than those who have committed to the Democratic label, but I digress.) Most times, we view our elected officials as trustees—people we vote for based on the assumption that they will act in our best interest. We rarely are motivated to ask them to live up to the literal definition of their title—representative—unless it’s an issue we’re deeply passionate about, or serves our self-interest. The question at hand, then: is it fair to hold one elected individual to two competing interpretations of their role? 

At its base, the argument against superdelegates is to ask those we have entrusted with leadership to cede their choice, their decision rights, their power. Now that women have achieved a greater amount of power in a space that allows them to be flexible and make their own choice, it seems that the worst we could do is ask them to give it away. 

I understand that many find the existence of superdelegates troublesome, yet I’m not willing to reverse the progress women have made in electoral and party leadership by removing the benefits of having achieved so. Maybe that makes me an elitist, or maybe that makes me an institutionalist, or both. But whatever it makes me, I still believe it also makes me a feminist.

Joshua Watkins

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