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DNC to confront fate of superdelegates after bitter 2016 fight

Members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are gearing up for a potentially bitter fight this weekend over the role of superdelegates in their presidential nominating process.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez is pushing a proposal at the party's summer meeting in Chicago that seeks to reduce the influence of superdelegates in the Democratic presidential nomination process by preventing them from voting in the first ballot. But they would get to vote in the rare event that a second round of voting is required to choose a nominee. 

Perez is likely to have the votes to pass the proposal, but opponents, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are mobilizing, arguing that it would disenfranchise some of the party's most prominent members, like lawmakers, former presidents and other powerful Democratic leaders.

The battle threatens to reawaken the divisions sowed by the 2016 Democratic nominating process, when superdelegates overwhelmingly backed Hillary Clinton as the party's nominee over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The debate comes roughly two years before Democrats convene to nominate their 2020 presidential candidate - with the party expecting a crowded field of potential contenders ranging from former Vice President Joe Biden to Sanders himself.

Sanders and his supporters have accused the DNC of running a rigged nomination process intended to snuff out candidates whose views don't jibe with those of the Democratic establishment.

Still, the proposal to limit the role of superdelegates - officially called unpledged delegates - has won the support of many party leaders and dignitaries, including two former DNC chairs, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had previously criticized the role of superdelegates in the nomination system.

Proponents of the reform effort see it as a way to help mend the intraparty divisions that emerged following the 2016 primary season. The measure sailed through the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee last month, sending it to a final vote by the full committee, which is set for Saturday.

"There is a strongly held view among millions that the so-called superdelegates play an oversized role in the party, and it's undeniably hindering our ability to move forward to bring the party together," Perez told The Baltimore Sun in a recent interview.

Unlike pledged delegates, whose votes at the convention are determined by state primary and caucus results, Democratic superdelegates are free to vote as they see fit.

In 2016, there were more than 700 superdelegates out of the 4,763 total delegates at the Democratic National Convention, meaning that they accounted for nearly a third of the 2,383 delegates needed to win the party's presidential nomination.

That prompted complaints from Sanders and his supporters that the senator's odds of winning the Democratic nomination were stacked against him.

Clinton came up just short of the 2,383 needed to secure the nomination, but her support among superdelegates ultimately pushed her over the threshold.

Terje Anderson, the chair of the Vermont Democratic Party and a DNC member, supports the measure to reform the role of superdelegates.

He said that they have been a periodic point of contention within the party since the system came into being in 1984, and that doing away with them would help ease tensions in the party.

"Ever since we've created them, they've been a point of contention at times," Anderson said by phone Thursday. "It's going to keep happening as long as we allow it."

Anderson said that he expects the full DNC to easily approve the proposal when it comes up for a vote on Saturday.

Some DNC members have sought in recent weeks to rally opposition to the proposed rule change. Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California and a superdelegate himself, said that he and others had been reaching out to superdelegates about the proposal.

Mulholland blamed Sanders for forcing the superdelegate issue, saying that the Vermont senator, a self-described democratic socialist, wielded outsize influence in the DNC, despite the fact that he is not even a party member.

"We've had members of Congress vote [on the first ballot] for almost 40 years. Everyone who has competed and lost, none of them said we should stop superdelegates from voting," he told The Hill, noting that the last time the nominating process went to a second ballot was 1952.

"This is just Bernie Sanders," he added.

Mulholland said that Perez had faced pressure from Sanders and his supporters to back the proposed superdelegate reform.

"He, all of a sudden, is a big poker player at the DNC," he said of the Vermont senator.

In a letter to Perez earlier this month, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, argued that reducing the role of superdelegates in choosing the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nominee would create friction with their constituents.

"Passage of the reforms in their current form would disenfranchise elected officials for no substantive reason and would create unnecessary competition between those elected and their constituents," Richmond wrote.

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