News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

September 03, 2019

Why your vote actually matters in the 2020 California primary

By Sandy Barnard

The California primary election is March 3, 2020, and California voters have the opportunity to make history. Due to the late primary date in 2016 and the undemocratic superdelegate system, the previous Democratic presidential primary was essentially decided before California could weigh in. As a result, the primary for the state with the largest population of Democrats in the country was more or less meaningless. This election cycle, with an early primary and a quarter of the delegates needed to win the nomination, Californians have the power again.

What happened in 2016?

Delegates at the Democratic National Convention decide the party’s nominee for president, and states hold primaries to determine how many delegates go to each candidate. The number of delegates awarded to a state is based roughly on how many people in that state voted for Democrats in the previous general election.

However, there are also “superdelegates” — members of the party elite who are not bound (or “pledged”) to state primary or caucus results. Superdelegates are elected officials or top donors to the Democratic Party, and so they are typically whiter, wealthier, and more centrist than the typical person voting in a Democratic primary. As former Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz explained, “Unpledged delegates exist really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don’t have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists.”

Superdelegates are designed to shield the elites of the Democratic Party from the power of grassroots left activists, and they succeeded. In New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders won the primary by over 20%, the superdelegate system resulted in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton receiving the same number of delegates. Every state delegate represented about 1,000 voters, and each state delegate vote was worth the vote of one unelected superdelegate. When Sanders supporters talk about the primary being “rigged,” this is what they mean.

Beyond superdelegates, Californians were also disenfranchised by their primary date. In 2016, the winning candidate needed 2,382 delegates. On June 6, 2016, the day before the California primary, Clinton had 1,813 state delegates, while Sanders had 1,524, but including the superdelegates who had declared for each candidate, Clinton had 2,415 to Sanders’s 1,572. Before Californians reached the ballot box, the nominee had effectively been decided.

With 39 million people living in California, the state is home to over 10% of the American population. Of all the Spanish speakers in the US, 25% live in California, and of the 131 million people of color in America, 24 million live in California. California is the largest and one of the most diverse states in the country, but we did not have a say in the 2016 primary.

What’s different now?

This primary season, 1,990 delegates will decide the nominee. California has 416 of them, and we get to use them. California’s primary has been moved to Super Tuesday — 16 states and 35% of all total delegates will vote on the same day, early in the process. With by far the most Democratic delegates to award (New York has the second-most with 273 delegates), the California primary will be make-or-break.

In 2018, the Democratic National Committee conceded after years of pressure and reformed the rules about superdelegates. Superdelegates are no longer permitted to vote on the “first ballot,” and will only vote if no candidate wins 1,990 delegates from state allocations alone.

While this is a victory, it makes the task of Sanders supporters more urgent. In the primaries, Sanders does not simply need to win, he needs to win a decisive victory so that he can win on the first ballot. Even if he is in the lead, having fewer than 1,990 delegates means that the superdelegates who represent the conservative party leadership get a vote. Those superdelegates will vote with their class interests — against the candidate of the working class. Sanders needs as many of California’s 416 delegates as we can win for him. With so many delegates, California can act as a firewall against superdelegates.

Democracy belongs to the working class

In 2016, income inequality was spiking, California was in a drought and on fire, and the average rent in San Francisco had almost doubled since the previous decade. Despite the inordinate challenges facing the working class of California in 2016, we did not get to cast a meaningful vote in the presidential primary. The Democratic Party nominee had already been decided by superdelegates before Californian votes were counted.

Of course, the Californians making up the party elite who make up the DNC superdelegates had a vote. Wealthy Californians donated huge sums of money to their preferred candidates, and they had a vote. But most working-class voters were not able to participate meaningfully in the election.

Under our current campaign finance laws and two parties built by the ruling class, the wealthy will always get to vote via donation, regardless of what state they live in. Members of the party elites are superdelegates, who get to declare their vote early and whose votes are equivalent to thousands of traditional primary votes. The working class gets to vote, but those votes are not always meaningful.

With an early primary date this year, Californian votes will be extremely meaningful. This is a massive opportunity, and Sanders supporters should take advantage of it by organizing for Bernie Sanders as much as possible.

However, we have this opportunity because of the benevolence of the Democratic Party, which is not a real win. Our votes have meaning in 2020, but we should fight to maintain and expand democratic control over our government and economy.

We need a genuinely democratic system where the wealthy and powerful do not have undue power over the outcome, and we will only win it through a mass movement for democratic control over our lives. Bernie Sanders is running for president to put an end to corporate control over elections and institute public financing.

We are still a long way away from a true one-person, one-vote system, but we will get there when masses of ordinary people get involved in politics. Democracy belongs to the working class, and only the working class can win democracy.