With Great Power Comes ... Less Responsibility? How New DNC Rules Hurt a New Generation of Black Officials

Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams takes the stage to declare victory in the primary during an election night event on May 22, 2018 in Atlanta. If elected, Abrams would become the first African American female governor in the nation.
Photo: Jessica McGowan (Getty Images)

With competitive candidates all over the country, the 2018 mid-term elections look like they will be a revolutionary moment for African Americans. Even the branding of this hidden black wave of candidates has been spectacular.

Graphic: The Collective PAC

Every flyer or story about gubernatorial candidates Andrew Gillum (Fla.), Ben Jealous (Md.) and Stacey Abrams (Ga.) looks like a cross between a campaign poster and a grown and sexy reunion tour for City High. Should these candidates win (and chances are pretty good for Abrams and Gillum), we can look forward to them being big players in the Democratic Party, especially in the 2020 election. Unfortunately, that won’t be the case, thanks in no small part to Bernie Sanders.

Last week the Democratic Party voted to basically strip superdelegates of their political power. Superdelegates aren’t delegates that joined together to fight the battles that regular delegates can’t, they’re local elected official members of Congress and party officials in each state. In the 2016 election, out of 4,500 democratic delegates across all 50 states and territories, only 715 were superdelegates. So while Democratic candidates win regular delegates, depending on how well they do in that state, superdelegates vote for which candidate they want to support based on personal decisions.

In theory, if you have a close primary election, say between an independent non-Democratic Senator from Vermont and a former first lady and Secretary of State, those 700 superdelegates could be the difference in who wins the nomination. And if they are elected officials who’ve already pledged loyalty to one presidential candidate over another, it could be very undemocratic and skew the entire nomination system.

Mind you, in the 36 years since the Democrats introduced superdelegates this has never happened. Not once. Not with Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in 1988, not with Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown in 1992, not with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 and certainly not with Bernie and Hillary in 2016. Yet that didn’t stop the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party from complaining about the superdelegate system.


Sanders (the non-Democrat) complained that most Democratic superdelegates were pledged to Hillary Clinton (an actual Democrat) before the primary, giving her an unfair advantage in the delegate count.

Of course, Sanders could’ve just worked harder to win over pledged superdelegates and get them to switch like a certain freshman Senator from Illinois did in 2008. Or he could have just counted on his fingers and toes and realized that he lost to Hillary Clinton by such a huge margin that, even if superdelegates didn’t exist, he still could not have won. But that sounds too much like personal responsibility. Instead, his supporters threw a tantrum and demanded that the superdelegate system be scrapped by 2020 or they’d split the party. They now have their wish, and it’s to the detriment of black power within the Democratic Party.


One of the big lessons for Democrats in the Trump era has been: “Listen to black women” and black people in general. Democratic primaries, especially in some Southern states, are over 60 percent black voters, which will result in more black elected officials this fall. In the 2016 primary, 20 percent of the superdelegates were African American and that number will likely rise to 25 percent or more by 2020.

But rather than those officials being able to flex their muscles during the 2020 primary, they’ll be stymied by this new rule. Superdelegates will still exist, but they can no longer vote until the second ballot at the convention, basically as tie-breakers, which again—never happens. They’ll just be a rubber stamp for however regular delegates vote. Yes, being a black governor or member of Congress will still matter, but only in a transitional and organizational way. They no longer have a direct say over whom the party nominee will be. Funny how a rule change to make things more “democratic” has a way of lessening African American political influence on the cusp of the biggest election in American history.


Back in the 50s, Wilt Chamberlain was dominating white basketball players so much the NBA widened the lane and changed the free throw rules. In the 60s Kareem Abdul Jabar (Lew Alcindor at the time) was so dominant in the paint that the NBA banned dunking the basketball until the late ’70s. When the NBA’s “Dream Team” was trouncing the world in the ’90s the entire world, suddenly the NBA started drafting white players from Europe and the European leagues started changing up their gameplay and rules. In the 2000s the entire NBA collective bargaining agreement was changed because LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. In other words, it seems like whenever black folks start dominating—or looking like they’re about to take over a white-dominated field—the rules change, access becomes harder, and the pathways to power suddenly have toll booths.

I’m sure Bernie Sanders and his supporters, some of whom are African American, don’t see the weakening of superdelegates as a check on black power. I’m sure they think these new rules make the Democratic primary fairer and—by extension—more democratic.


But that’s usually how race and power work. It’s not about intentions. It’s about consequences. And as a consequence of these rules, intended or not, black elected officials will have less say in 2020 than at any point in party history.

I guess they should just be happy they aren’t forced to cast their votes from behind the 3-point line.

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