Democrats Overhaul Controversial Superdelegate System

Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in Chicago on Thursday. The group is holding its annual summer meetings this week.

CHICAGO — Democratic Party officials, after a yearslong battle between warring ideological wings, have agreed to sharply reduce the influence of the top political insiders known as superdelegates in the presidential nomination process.

Under the new plan, which was agreed to on Saturday afternoon in Chicago at the Democratic National Committee’s annual summer meetings, superdelegates retain their power to back any candidate regardless of how the public votes. They will now be largely barred, however, from participating in the first ballot of the presidential nominating process at the party’s convention — drastically diluting their power.

Superdelegates will be able to cast substantive votes only in extraordinary cases like contested conventions, in which the nomination process is extended through multiple ballots until one candidate prevails.

“After you lose an election, you have to look in the mirror,” said Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Dean had recorded a video message to committee members urging them to back the proposed changes.

“As a so-called superdelegate myself, I feel this is the best path forward,” he said. “It is exactly the kind of change we have to make, not just to strengthen our candidates, but to strengthen the view of the Democratic Party among its core group of voters, which is young Americans.”

Party officials also hope the rule changes will help bury vestiges of acrimony over the 2016 primary election.

Though superdelegates have never before overturned the will of Democratic voters in the presidential primary, their role caused deep tensions in the Democratic primary two years ago between Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Supporters of Mr. Sanders said these insiders — mostly elected officials, party leaders and donors — were emblematic of a “rigged” nomination system favoring Mrs. Clinton.

After Mrs. Clinton’s loss in the general election, party leaders committed to a wholesale re-examination of the party’s presidential nomination process, including easing some voting requirements, further encouraging grass-roots activism, increasing transparency surrounding presidential debates, as well as overhauling the superdelegate system.

Throughout the annual meeting in Chicago, some activists expressed concerns that the proposed changes to the superdelegate system would fail, particularly after several black party leaders expressed skepticism about the revisions. However, propelled by Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and by Mr. Dean and other prominent party leaders, the overhaul passed by an overwhelming margin.

There was a huge ovation, and some tears, when the final measure was passed.

“Today we demonstrated the values of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Perez said. “We want everyone to have a seat at the table. That’s what today is about.”

Mr. Sanders said in a statement, “Today’s decision by the D.N.C. is an important step forward in making the Democratic Party more open, democratic and responsive.”

The committee’s leaders were helped by a rare mind meld between the Democratic establishment and progressive activists who have often chided the party’s elite. They included Norman Solomon, an author and antiwar activist; Karen Bernal, the chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party; and Selina Vickers, a West Virginia activist who had gone on a seven-day hunger strike to raise awareness for superdelegate reform.

The three attended a news conference this week at which activists announced their support of the superdelegate overhaul, buoying its chances of passage.

“When it came to the idea of superdelegate reform, this was arrived at by both sides of the prior contest,” Ms. Bernal told reporters. “We can agree on things, and this is one area where there’s been broad agreement.”

“It’s frankly bizarre to be on the same side of the issue as Mr. Perez, but I’m glad we are,” said Ms. Vickers, who can now end her hunger strike.

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