Hillary Clinton won her party’s nomination with support from 85 percent of North Carolina’s superdelegates – well above the 55 percent of regular delegates she received in the state’s March primary.
The discrepancy mirrors a national trend that drew outcry from supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. And it’s prompted the Democratic Party to move toward reducing the number of superdelegates, who are party leaders who vote for their own preferred candidate at the national convention.
North Carolina’s delegates for both Sanders and Clinton support changing the superdelegate system. Party leaders have given tentative approval to limit superdelegate status to top Democratic elected officials such as governors and members of Congress. Members of the Democratic National Committee would still be delegates, but they’d be pledged to candidates based on their states’ primary results.
“A lot of people want to eliminate this idea that there are unelected or unrepresentative party leaders swinging the election,” said Sam Spencer, a Clinton delegate from Charlotte. He served on the rules committee that developed the proposal, which will be implemented by a newly created “unity commission” in time for the next presidential election.
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The plan would sharply dilute the influence of superdelegates, reducing their number by about two-thirds. If the new system was in place this year, North Carolina would likely have had just three superdelegates instead of 13 – all of them members of Congress, and all supporters of Clinton.
Robert Hyman, a Sanders delegate who lives in the Middle Creek area of Wake County, said he’d like to eventually see superdelegates eliminated entirely.
“There may be more improvement needed, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” he said of the plan. “We make progress by compromise. We don’t make progress by standing pat and glaring at each other.”
Some Democrats point to Donald Trump’s nomination as a reason to keep superdelegates. The Republican Party does not have superdelegates, so all delegates are allocated based on primary and caucus results.
“It does provide a firewall in case something catches fire that is not representative of who we are,” said Zack Hawkins of Greenville, who is a superdelegate because he was elected the state party’s vice chairman. “Many of the Republicans look at Trump and say ‘that’s not who we are.’”
But Hyman said Democrats wouldn’t nominate a Trump-like candidate: “I think we’re better than that.”
U.S. Rep. David Price, who represents parts of the Triangle, led a commission that developed the current superdelegate system with Gov. Jim Hunt in the 1980s. He said he doesn’t like the term “superdelegate,” preferring to call them “unpledged delegates.”
“Elected officials and even party leaders were being driven from the convention,” Price said. “We thought it was important for the party’s elected officials to have some responsibility for party affairs.”
Before the changes from the Hunt Commission, members of Congress had to compete with grass-roots party activists for delegate slots. “If a member of Congress has to run against his constituents to go to the convention, he’s just not going to do it,” Price said.
Price says he’s supportive of the changes but worries about requiring DNC members to vote against their preferred candidate. “I think that’s something that this commission would want to look at very carefully,” he said.
North Carolina delegates say they think much of the acrimony about superdelegates this year stems from misconceptions.
“It’s a sensational story, and misinformation has gotten out there,” said Ray McKinnon, a Sanders delegate from Charlotte. “Some folks actually think that superdelegates cast more than one vote.”
Superdelegates likely wouldn’t have used their votes to give Clinton the nomination if Sanders had won a majority of pledged delegates, Hawkins said. He said he waited until after the state’s primary to pledge his vote to Clinton.
“We’re going to honor the will of the voters,” he said. “The voters of North Carolina said that they supported Hillary, so that’s what we did.”
Would Hawkins have been a Sanders delegate if the state’s primary turned out differently? “If he won and had just as good a chance (of winning in November) as she did, then yeah,” he said.
Who are North Carolina’s superdelegates?
Here’s a list of the state’s 13 superdelegates and which candidate they support:
Joyce Brayboy (Clinton): An at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, she’s a Goldman Sachs lobbyist and was a staffer for former U.S. Rep. Mel Watt.
Pat Cotham (Sanders): A Mecklenburg County commissioner, Cotham is one of the state’s representatives to the DNC.
Jeannette Council (Clinton): A Cumberland County commissioner, Council is one of the state’s representatives to the DNC.
Janet Cowell (Clinton): Cowell, the state treasurer, has superdelegate status because she’s a member of the National Association of Democratic State Treasurers.
Olma Echeverri (Clinton): A manager at a Charlotte printing company, Echeverri is one of the state’s representatives to the DNC.
Akilah Ensley (Clinton): A Greenville native, Ensley has worked for a number of Democratic campaigns in North Carolina. She’s a superdelegate because of her leadership role in the Young Democrats of America.
Patsy Keever (Clinton): A former state legislator from Asheville, her role as state party chairwoman makes her a superdelegate.
Zack Hawkins (Clinton): Hawkins is a state DNC member and a development director at East Carolina University.
Jake Quinn (Sanders): A small-business owner from Asheville, Quinn is one of the state’s representatives to the DNC.
Everett Ward (Clinton): Ward is president of St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh and a state representative to the DNC.
All three Democrats in Congress (Clinton): U.S. Reps. David Price, Alma Adams and G.K. Butterfield.