In 'historic' move, Democrats strip superdelegates of power

CHICAGO — The Democratic National Committee voted Saturday to significantly curtail the power of superdelegates and make presidential caucuses more accessible, overcoming objections from a small but vocal minority of its membership.

The reform package, pushed by DNC Chairman Tom Perez and allies of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others, passed overwhelmingly by voice vote at the DNC's summer meeting here — two years after the process started.

Perez and others hailed the outcome as momentous, saying the reforms will help welcome new people into the party by reassuring them that their vote will never be overruled by the party leaders who can vote for whomever they want for the presidential nomination.

"Today is a historic day for our party," Perez said. "We passed major reforms that will not only put our next presidential nominee in the strongest position possible, but will help us elect Democrats up and down the ballot, across the country."

RELATED: Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez

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Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez

Former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, a candidate for Democratic National Committee Chairman, speaks during a Democratic National Committee forum in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2017.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Tom Perez addresses the audience after being elected Democratic National Chair during the Democratic National Committee winter meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. 

(REUTERS/Chris Berry)

Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, speculated to be on the short list for Hillary Clinton's Vice President, addresses a women's summit at the Department of Labor on June, 15, 2016 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., attend a news conference in Capitol Visitor Center on the fiduciary rule which is meant to help Americans save for retirement, April 28, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Tom Perez, left, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and deputy chairman Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., are interviewed in Statuary Hall before President Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress in the Capitol, February 28, 2017.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., attend a news conference in Capitol Visitor Center on the fiduciary rule which is meant to help Americans save for retirement, April 28, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

US Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the 84th annual Winter Meeting of The United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2016.

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Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez attends a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center, April 30, 2015, on the 'Raise the Wage Act,' that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 per hour by 2020.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

US Vice President Joe Biden (L) smiles with Labor Secretary Tom Perez as he arrives to address the Apprenticeship Summit at the White House in Washington, DC, on September 8, 2015.

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Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez (R) and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speak at a press conference before signing an executive order raising the living wage law on September 30, 2014 in New York City. Under the new living wage law, which takes effect today, employees of companies that receive more than $1 million in subsidies from the city government will need to pay their employees between $11.50 - $13.13 an hour, depending on whether or not the employee receives benefits. The law is expected to effect thousands of people working in industries from retail to fast food.

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (R) and Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez speak privately at a press conference before signing an executive order raising the living wage law on September 30, 2014 in New York City. Under the new living wage law, which takes effect today, employees of companies that receive more than $1 million in subsidies from the city government will need to pay their employees between $11.50 - $13.13 an hour, depending on whether or not the employee receives benefits. The law is expected to effect thousands of people working in industries from retail to fast food.

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

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The change will prohibit superdelegates from voting for president at the party's 2020 convention, unless the outcome is already assured or it deadlocks, which hasn't happened in decades. The vast majority of superdelegates sided with Hillary Clinton over Sanders in their primary fight two years ago.

"Today's decision by the DNC is an important step forward," Sanders said in a statement. "This has been a long and arduous process, and I want to thank Tom Perez and all of those who made it happen."

The new rules will also make caucuses more accessible by requiring state parties to accept absentee votes, addressing concerns that the caucuses are less democratic than primaries because they require people to physically attend the events in order to participate in the presidential nominating process in their state.

A number of state parties are already considering replacing their caucuses with primaries, with some state party chairs here predicting the 2020 nominating contest will feature many fewer caucuses than in 2016.

The DNC can't force states to change their rules but the reform package includes measures to encourage states to open their primaries and caucuses to independent voters, as well as to expand same-day voter registration in order to bring new voters.

Saturday's vote was the conclusion of a lengthy process that began just before the 2016 Democratic National Convention, coming out of the animosity of that year's presidential primary.

The party created the Unity Reform Commission to propose changes, which then led to 83 hours of discussion in the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, which then led to a vote by the party's Executive Committee and then, finally, approval by the full DNC in Chicago.

"We've debated this ad nauseam," said union president Lee Saunders of AFSCME, reflecting the fatigue of many in the room. "Our job as the Democratic Party is to get Democrats elected, so let's start that right now."

Nearly every DNC member is a superdelegate, so some were not eager to give up their power.

Image: DNC Chair Tom Perez

Defenders of the status quo headed into the meeting knowing they were outnumbered, but determined to fight. However, after a procedural vote that went overwhelmingly in Perez' favor, they saw the writing on the wall.

In a dramatic moment, Don Fowler, a former DNC chair who has been leading the resistance to the superdelegate change, stood to essentially concede and call for a swift approval of the changes by acclimation, rather than a full vote by paper ballots.

That was met with a standing ovation from delegates, many of whom were eyeing the clock as they hoped to catch flights later in the afternoon.

"I was skeptical of this proposal, but I'm a team player, and the most important thing we can do is elect Democrats this fall and in 2020," said William Owens, a DNC member from Tennessee, choking back tears. "I'm trying to say this without crying."

The debate was passionate and personal on both sides, provoking a hunger strike, invocations of the Bible and JFK, and some hurt feelings.

"We should never be afraid of passion because what is far worse than passion is apathy," Perez told delegates, comparing to vote to a family debate at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Some of the strongest opposition to the change came from black delegates, especially in the older generation, who said it would "disenfranchise" African-American and Latino party leaders and make their convention less diverse.

"Are you telling me that I'm going to go to a convention, after my 30 years of blood, sweat, and tears for this party, that you're going to take away my right to appease a group of people?" said DNC Vice Chair Karen Carter Peterson, a black Louisiana State Senator, presumably referring to white Sanders supporters.

Proponents of the change dispute that charge, noting state parties will still include diversity requirements in their delegate selection rules, and that superdelegates can still endorse and advocate for candidates.

The changes are the most consequential reforms to the party's nominating process since the 1980s, when it created superdelegates. Republican have no equivalent to superdelegates in their party.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the three finalist cities to host the 2020 Democratic National Conventional tried to woo DNC members with food, drink and celebrity guests.

Miami's host committee threw a party on a boat that included free flip-flops and beach towels, Houston decked the halls of the Hyatt Regency with advertisements, and Milwaukee brought in basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to work a rope line as delegates munched on cheese curds and sipped the wares of the city's famous breweries.

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