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Is the Democratic Party democratic?
Sean Parnell • Mar 22, 2022

I recently wrote about the League of Women Voters, a group that wants to abolish the Electoral College but elects its own national officers using a process remarkably similar to the Electoral College.

Another organization worth a similar look is the Democratic Party. Like the League of Women Voters, the Democratic Party often talks about the principle of “one person, one vote.” The national party’s 2020 party platform includes the following in its “Restoring and Strengthening Our Democracy” section:

“Democrats are committed to the sacred principle of “one person, one vote”—and we will fight to achieve that principle for every citizen….”

Unlike the League, however, the national Democratic party understands that “one person, one vote,” isn’t the only democratic principle. And it’s a good thing, otherwise it might draw some awkward questions regarding the party’s process for electing its own leadership (and the nomination process for its presidential and vice-presidential candidates as well, which will be addressed in a later blog post).

The Charter and Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States (the official name of the organization) lays out the process the party uses to select the members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) which in turn elect the Chair of the DNC. Suffice it to say, it is a long, long way from a direct vote or the “one person, one vote” mantra routinely invoked by opponents of the Electoral College (including advocates of the National Popular Vote interstate compact).

Under the Democratic Party’s rules, there are typically about 440 members of the DNC not including the chair and several other national officers (vice-chairs, secretary, etc.). Even that count is a little fuzzy, however—while most members of the DNC have one and only one vote, the eight members representing the group Democrats Abroad have four votes to split between them.

Each state, Washington DC, and the five U.S. territories (American Samoa, Guam, Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) has two members, the state (or territory) party chair and one other state party official. Several affinity groups or other officials also serve on the DNC, such as the Democratic leaders of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate Democratic caucuses, the chair and two other members of the Democratic Governors Association, and the president of the College Democrats of America, as well as two other representatives of that organization. There are another 200 DNC members that are apportioned among the states, with each state being allocated members “…giving equal weight to population, which may be measured by electoral vote, and to the Democratic vote in elections for office of the President…,” though each state is guaranteed at least two additional DNC members from the 200. Finally, each of the U.S. territories get another two members. There are also up to 75 “at large” members that are generally nominated by the Chair and approved by the rest of the DNC.

If one were obsessed with the Electoral College’s modest tilt in favor of less populous states, the structure of the DNC that elects its party chair should be alarming. Critics of this tilt frequently cite the disparity between California (the most populous state) and Wyoming (the least populous state), in which the nearly 40 million people of the former have “only” 54 electoral votes while the less than 600,000 people in the latter get three.

So what is the representation of these two states on the DNC? According to the California Democratic Party, there are 33 DNC members from the Golden State (some of whom are on the DNC not as representatives of California Democrats, but because of their other positions – Nancy Pelosi, for example, is on the DNC as the leader of the House Democrats). Wyoming, meanwhile, is guaranteed at least four. The number of Democrats in each state is even more lopsided than the overall population – there are roughly 46,000 registered Democrats in all of Wyoming, compared to more than ten million registered Democrats in California, or a roughly 220:1 ratio of California Democrats to Wyoming Democrats.

It should also be noted that, to the best of my knowledge, none of the members of the DNC was elected to that position by any sort of popular vote of Democratic Party members. Nancy Pelosi serves on the DNC because she was elected leader by her 220 or so fellow Democrats in the U.S. House; Maine State Representative Rachel Talbot Ross represents her state on the DNC because she was elected by the state Democratic convention to be its national committeewoman; and Quentin Wathum-Ocama of Minnesota serves on the DNC because he was elected president of the Young Democrats at that organization’s national convention (and that organization’s rules for how many votes each state or territorial chapter has at its national convention are pretty complex and includes calculating the mileage to drive from the capitol or largest city of a chapter’s state to the city where the convention is being held).

The way the Democratic Party selects its leadership, including how it chooses those who in turn select the party’s national chair, would be undemocratic if the only definition of democracy is rigid adherence to the principle of “one person, one vote” and direct elections. Fortunately, the Democratic Party understands that it is vital that a broad cross-section of the party – and the nation as a whole - has meaningful representation, and that smaller and otherwise overlooked groups and key constituencies be represented as well. The structure and process for building the DNC and electing its national chair ensure that these “small-d” democratic values are embraced alongside “one person, one vote.”

So is the Democratic Party democratic? To the extent that it operates similarly to the electoral and representative structures set up in our Constitution, of course it is. It would be interesting, though, to ask the most fervent advocates of National Popular Vote and other critics of the Electoral College what they think.

Photo by Gage Skidmore