West Virginia's Superdelegate Disaster
Updated: May 2, 2022
(Links to documents and articles are in underlined in blue)
We heard a lot about the political trauma imposed by superdelegates in 2016, but West Virginia was dealt the most devastating blow of all. Here's what happened:
Bernie Sanders was incredibly popular in West Virginia. His strong pro-labor and economic message, as well as his historical integrity, stood out in the hearts and minds of WV voters. There was energy that I had never seen in an election. He held two rallies in our small state with packed audiences and held a profound forum titled Poverty in America in one of the poorest counties in the nation, McDowell County, WV. He energized people to vote that had lost faith in voting. People young and old were energized and working for Bernie.
On May 10, 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in the WV primary. Secretary Clinton won 36% of the vote and placed third behind Paul Farrell in Mingo County, WV. Farrell is a lawyer in the nearby city of Huntington. WV was allotted 29 pledged delegates to the DNC convention. Proportionally, after the primary, Bernie Sanders had 18 pledged delegates and Hillary Clinton had 11. At that time, WV had 8 superdelegates, of which 6 had pledged to Clinton and 2 had pledged to Bernie, but that would change.
One of the superdelegates pledged to Bernie was Elaine Harris, with Communication Workers of America (CWA), who was following the will of her CWA union members who voted overwhelmingly to support Sanders. Even though she publicly pledged her superdelegate vote for Bernie, Elaine ultimately voted for Hillary Clinton at the DNC. The other was Chris Regan, who at that time was the Vice-Chair of the WV Democratic Party. Senator Joe Manchin contacted him after he publicly pledged support for Bernie Sanders and pushed for Regan to switch his support to Clinton. Here is an excerpt from an article Regan wrote:
When I, as a one-time DNC superdelegate, chose to endorse Bernie Sanders, I got outraged calls on behalf of Sen. Joe Manchin and former party chairman Larry Puccio, of the “how-dare-you” kind. They insisted I retract my support for the candidate West Virginia Democrats liked the best so they could “deliver” West Virginia’s delegation for the person they assumed would be our next president. I stuck with the voters, and ended up losing my job. But for me, that’s better than sticking my thumb in the eye of the voters. ~Chris Regan, former Vice Chair, WV Democratic Party (Charleston Gazette-Mail, November 17, 2016)
At the June 2016 WV Democratic Convention, a month before the DNC Convention, the WV Democratic Executive Committee left the floor of the convention for a luncheon meeting during the middle of a very long platform discussion where delegates pushed hours past lunchtime to pass the most progressive platform ever achieved in the state. Meanwhile, upstairs in the luncheon meeting provided by Senator Manchin, Chris Regan was ousted as the Vice-Chair (and superdelegate) of the WV Democratic party and was replaced by retiring state Senator, William Laird. It is widely thought in West Virginia that Senator Manchin orchestrated the ousting of Regan. Newly appointed Vice-Chair Laird was publicly non-committal about his support before the DNC convention, but ultimately used his super vote for Clinton. I was told that Senator Manchin whipped the superdelegate vote for Clinton in order to secure a position in her Cabinet once she was elected. I do not have proof of that, but I was in a meeting where Senator Manchin stated to the room that he told Hillary Clinton that he couldn't do anything to help her in the general election, but he promised to deliver West Virginia to her in the primary. He kept his promise.
At the 2016 DNC Convention all 8 supers cast their votes for Hillary Clinton, which brought the total to Hillary 19, Bernie 18. And if that wasn't bad enough, not all of the WV superdelegates were on the floor of the convention during the vote. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Senator Joe Manchin were not present during the roll call. Belinda Biafore, the WV Chair informed the delegates the morning of the vote that all delegates must be in the WV delegation area during the roll call or their votes would not be counted. If you are a delegate, most of your state delegation has breakfast each morning to discuss the activities and any information. The second day of the convention we also voted on tally sheets. There were two tally sheets exactly alike and we were told to vote and sign both. I asked why there were two and was told that they didn't know, but we were to do it. I contacted the Bernie liaison after that meeting and asked if this was true that we had to be in the delegation area and it was confirmed that we did. He said that if anyone were to poll the delegates and people were not there, their vote would not be counted.
Later that day during the roll call, I think it was around the Louisiana vote (they go in alphabetical order), I noticed that Senator Manchin and Governor Tomblin were not in the delegation area and alerted the others. One of the Bernie delegates, Kathryn Conant, was tweeted by Jason Barro, Senior Editor for Business Insider, showing a photo of her yelling, "poll the delegates!" I went to Biafore and informed her that Manchin and Tomblin weren't there, so the vote should now be Bernie 18, Hillary 17 (19 - 2 absent supers). She then told me that the roll call was just for show, that the morning vote was what counted and that they didn't have to be present. Alternately, Biafore reported to the Charleston-Gazette, "Tomblin was in attendance by the time West Virginia voted and Manchin was replaced by an alternate for the vote." Neither was true. I was there. Tomblin wasn't there, and although he did show up about 30 minutes after, he was not in the WV delegation area during the roll call, which you can see by the photo or video of the WV delegation during the roll call (WV starts at 1:24:14). Additionally, Biafore says that "Manchin was replaced by an alternate for the vote", which is not allowed by DNC rules. The DNC Charter and Bylaws clearly state in Article 2, Section 4 (h)(iii)8, "such delegates shall not be permitted to have alternates." Pledged delegates have alternates. Unpledged, or "super" delegates, do not. Senator Manchin wasn't there, he was not entitled to an alternate, his vote should not have been counted, especially when a delegate makes a motion to poll the delegates, which was done and ignored. There are phones on the polls that hold the name of the state delegation and those phones are in place so that the delegation chair can call in motions made by their delegates. The WV phone was not used. None of the motions made by the West Virginia delegates were conveyed.
And, just like that, eight superdelegates broke West Virginia. Clinton won only 36% of the vote, yet 8 powerful people handed West Virginia over to her. Can you imagine how people felt? People who were already skeptical of politics were then convinced that their vote didn't count, powerful people always get their way and why try? Many good, hardworking Democrats exited the party publicly with #Demexit social media posts. The WV Democratic Party couldn't get the vote out for Hillary Clinton, in fact, they didn't try. They held candidate trainings and instructed the down ballot Democratic candidates to distance themselves from Clinton. I suspect that is why Manchin and Tomblin weren't at the roll call; they didn't want photos of them celebrating Clinton's win. I was told that the Clinton campaign only gave the entire state 500 yard signs and Clinton didn't enter the state after the primary. Yet anyone that didn't vote for Clinton is harshly condemned by party leadership for being the cause for Clinton's loss.
With Hillary Clinton and a Republican-turned-Democrat billionaire coal baron for Governor at the top of the ticket for the Democrats, what inspiration was there for people who were just told by the superdelegates action that their vote didn't count? Many defeated West Virginians stayed home on election day, and can you blame them? The result? Trump supporters came out and voted Republican down the ballot. WV now has a Republican controlled state House, Senate and Governor who are obsessed with fossil fuels, taking people's land, reducing taxes for the rich and reducing services for everyone else. To be fair, many elected Democrats are also obsessed with fossil fuels. Our Republican-turned-Democrat Governor changed back to Republican 9 months after he was elected as a welcome present for a Donald Trump visit to our state.
To add insult to injury, I've been told by party leaders that because I called attention to the superdelegate vote and intervened at the convention, because I protested the vote with my hand over my mouth, because I walked out of the convention after the roll call vote, because I show up at Unity Reform Commission meetings and DNC Rules and Bylaws meetings to educate the committee members about the WV Superdelegate Disaster, that I am an embarrassment to West Virginia. I firmly reject that. Some may suggest that anyone that willingly turned their backs on our people is an embarrassment to West Virginia.... and, that's definitely not me.
Why is this story important nearly 2 years after it happened? Because there is a chance that it can change the next time. One good thing that came out of the 2016 DNC Convention was a resolution passed unanimously by Hillary and Bernie delegates. The resolution called for the formation of the Unity Reform Commission (URC). The URC is a mix of some Bernie, a few Perez and mostly Hillary appointees. They met 5 times in 2017 and made recommendations on party reforms, caucuses, primaries and superdelegates. They passed their URC report on to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (RCB). The RBC is making recommendations to the full DNC on August 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. There have been discussions about superdelegates from leaving them in place, to complete elimination, and everywhere in between. The RBC will make their final decision about superdelegates on a phone conference call on June 27, 2018 at 1pm (ET). After the phone call, the decision will be in the hands of hundreds of DNC members. They have the power to end superdelegates. After learning about the WV Superdelegate Disaster, I find it difficult to understand how anyone could support the further existence of the superdelegates. I hope that this information will be shared with DNC members and democracy advocates to use to have sincere discussions about democracy vs. The Democratic Party. If we can't role model democracy, how can we lead a democracy?
If we can't role model democracy, how can we lead a democracy?
As a small side note, I want to share that at the 2016 WV Democratic Convention, Bernie and Hillary supporters from all across the state worked together and stuck together from 9am to after 4pm with NO breaks to pass the most progressive platform the state has ever achieved. The party hadn't arranged to have food vendors in the convention center at that time because it was scheduled to end by 1pm. Word got out on social media that the delegates were hungry. Bernie supporters from all across the United States and the world called in pizzas that were delivered to the convention center and shared among the Bernie AND Hillary supporters. Look for the hashtag #socialistpizzas to see more.
One other small side note: At the first Unity Reform Commission meeting I attended, one of the members, David Huynh, said that the information on the graphic I gave out was incorrect. He stated that he knew for a fact that Elaine Harris voted for Bernie Sanders. We later talked by phone and he stated that the votes can be changed after the breakfast vote. I asked if Elaine had changed her vote and he wouldn't say, but implied that she did. He definitely stated that she voted for Bernie (which would mean that one of the pledged Bernie delegates voted for Clinton and I could not imagine that would be possible). He also said that there was an concerted effort to make sure that Bernie received all of his delegates in the roll call. Elaine stated to the delegation that she voted for Clinton at the request of her union, which I respected. The conversation with Huynh bothered me and I contacted the DNC soon after to request to see the tally sheets. This request was ignored, even after I spoke with a senior staff person to Chairman Perez, William Hale, in October 2017. In March 2018, I spoke with DNC Secretary, Jason Rae, and he arranged for me to view the tally sheets. They are kept at the National Archives, but are not open to the public. I was instructed before I arrived that I would be observed and could not take photos or video or have a pen. Only pencil, paper and observer. I visited the National Archives in Washington DC on April 12, 2018, nearly 8 months and several emails after my initial request. What I found only slightly surprised me. All the pledged delegates voted how they were pledged. All the supers voted for Clinton. No votes appeared to be changed in anyway. The surprise was that there was only one set of tally sheets. I informed the Archives employee that we signed two sets and she said that there was only one set. I had previously mentioned this on the phone when making the arrangements with DNC staff. They seemed confused also and said that each state and territory only had one set of tally sheets. I have no idea why West Virginia had two sets, but I do find it interesting that David Huynh was convinced that Elaine voted for Bernie and that the National Archives only had one set.
My perspective: While I strongly disagree with the superdelegates block decision to vote for Clinton and later Tom Perez, I do not have any ill will toward them, especially Elaine Harris and William Laird, who have done advocacy and work for the people of West Virginia in other roles. They just got this really big, important vote very wrong. They are still DNC members and have the chance to change their legacy on August 25. I believe this story is very important for people to know as the DNC vote to reduce and/or eliminate superdelegates approaches. However, I do not want the information learned here to be used to harass anyone. Harass, no. Educate, yes!
You can learn more about What and Who are Superdelegates here: www.selinavickers.com/who-and-what-are-superdelegates
You can learn more about The Superdelegate Decision options here: