What Are Superdelegates?

| by Diana Kruzman
The 2008 Democratic Party conventionThe 2008 Democratic Party convention

The Democratic Party's use of superdelegates has come under scrutiny in 2016, as the presidential race pits establishment candidate Hillary Clinton against the populist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The use of superdelegates is a long-standing feature of Democratic primary elections, but the general public has known little about it until recently. Now, more and more people are questioning whether these unpledged delegates have a place in the nominating process.

Here's how it works.

Following the primaries, every state sends a certain number of delegates to each party’s national convention, where the nominees are selected, according to CNN. These delegates are bound to vote for whomever the popular vote in their state supported, based on the percentage of total votes won by each candidate.

However, the Democratic Party has also established more than 700 superdelegates, composed of elected officials and senior party officers who are automatically entered into the delegation without consultation from voters. They form about 15 percent of the convention’s total votes, and they are unpledged -- meaning they can vote for whichever candidate they so choose, rather than who the voters want.

Robert Shrum, a political consultant who has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns, called superdelegates "cushy patronage for party officials and past political officeholders," according to The New York Times.

"They’re fundamentally undemocratic," Shrum  said. "They shouldn’t exist, and it would be wonderful if we got rid of them. Superdelegates are a poison pill that the Democratic Party has never swallowed, in the sense that they have never determined a nominee against the will of the voters."

However, others believe that superdelegates are necessary due to the stability that they bring to the political process. Joshua Putnam, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, said superdelegates aren’t likely to go away any time soon because of their value to Democratic Party officials.

“Their goal is not democracy, per se,” Putnam told The Times. “It’s a system that produces a candidate who can win a general election. Sometimes those things don’t align perfectly.”

Sources: CNN, The New York Times / Photo Credit: rabidmoose/Flickr

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