photo: Corbis

Democratic voters might be headed for a rude awakening. As Bernie Sanders closes the pledged delegate gap between himself and Hillary Clinton, and 712 party elite superdelegates — who may ultimately decide who will represent the Democrats in November’s presidential elections. In a race as close as this, it may be superdelegates — a group of Democrats that includes lobbyists — that take either candidate to the magic number and final round of the race to the White House. 

In the Democratic primaries and caucuses, U.S. states and territories hold elections whose results determine how many pledged delegates go to each candidate. As of right now, Clinton leads Sanders by 219 delegates, or 1,305 to 1,086. With Sanders winning the last seven states to hold elections, the Senator from Vermont has been eating away at the former Secretary of State’s lead. But even if Sanders surpasses his rival in pledged delegate count, it may not matter at the Democratic National Convention to be held in Philadelphia in July. It is entirely possible that after primary season and pledged delegates are divvied up, neither Clinton nor Sanders will have the 2,382 total delegates needed to win the party nomination. 

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The Democrats’ superdelegate system started in 1982 and was instituted as a way to allow party leaders to ensure that the candidate chosen to represent the party was electable in the general elections. Superdelegates are the tiebreakers at a brokered convention in which neither primary candidate won enough pledged delegates to move forward in the race. This year, as anti-establishment Sanders gains traction among voters, the idea that that establishment will be able to pull the reigns on his candidacy at the cost of popular will has brought the superdelegate system to face increasing, and valid, public scrutiny. 

The New York Daily News got confirmation that six of New York’s superdelegates would not give their votes to Sanders even if New Yorkers do. Sanders, who seeks to change the current relationship between money and politics, has thus far only been able to gain the support of 31 superdelegates — to Clinton’s 469. 

The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, caused a stir in February when she spoke with CNN about the superdelegate system. 

“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,” the Democratic leader said, which sounds like the system was created to keep candidates like Sanders off the general election ballot. 

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In a statement sent to Vivala, Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz defends the Democrats’ superdelegate system. 

“We offered and provided both of our candidates, as well as others, extensive briefings with our senior staff on the rules and the process early on in this cycle, and they’re all competing on a level playing field.” She continues, “This is what primaries are all about, the candidates do their best to compete and leverage whatever works best for their campaigns, whether that’s strength in primary vs caucus states, how they reach out to voters or delegates, all the way down to congressional district level strategy.” 

The idea is that Clinton and Sanders have both had the opportunity to lobby for superdelegate support. The congresswoman adds that superdelegates have “never determined the nominee,” and that figures available for superdelegate counts — e.g., the 31-to-469 Sanders-to-Clinton numbers — are only media projections based on informal polling. So those numbers, unlike pledged delegate figures, can change — although it is difficult to imagine superdelegates choosing Bernie Sanders in a tie-breaker. For now, when both pledged and superdelegates are tallied, Clinton’s lead over Sanders jumps from 219 to 657, concerning at least some observers of this particularly unprecedented election season. 

There is a petition — currently with 186,498 signatures — to end the Democrats' superdelegate system. Another petition — with over 207,000 supporters — seeks to ensure that superdelegates’ votes align with the will of the citizenry. There is even a superdelegate “hit list” with the names and contact information of the top Democrats "to make it easier for voters to hold party officials accountable.” 

With this election season already full of surprises, this may be the year when superdelegates, and not the electorate, decide which Democrat gets to face the winning Republican in November. If that happens, calls to end or change the Democratic Party’s superdelegate system will only get louder.