Although it did not have a formal set of rules before 1972, the Democratic Party operated with two controversial rules from its earliest conventions. The UNIT RULE enabled the majority of a delegation to cast the entire vote of the delegation for one candidate or position. The unit rule was abolished by the 1968 convention. The TWO-THIRDS NOMINATING RULE mandated candidates for president and vice president were required to win a two-thirds majority vote (as opposed to a simple majority). The two-thirds nominating rule was abolished in 1936 because the rule produced seven multi-ballot conventions between the years of 1832 and 1932.
Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was an unmitigated disaster as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. But he had a lasting impact on the party through his work as first chairman of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. Because of the McGovern committee's work, it is no longer possible for small groups of state party officials to handpick convention delegates, tell them whom to vote for and, in effect, choose the party nominee without consulting the voters. (Hubert Humphrey was the last such candidate -- he received the 1968 nomination despite having won NO primaries or caucuses.)
Beginning with reforms proposed by the McGovern panel, the Democratic party "democratized" the presidential selection process through a succession of commissions between 1968 and 1992. This series of changes succeeded in 1) crafting rules to guarantee better representation for women, young people and minorities; 2) secured PROPORTIONAL ALLOCATION of delegates, based on state primary or caucus results (eliminating winner-take-all allocation of delegates); and 3) gave convention votes to party leaders and elected officials (they are nicknamed SUPERDELEGATES and are allowed to remain uncommitted until the convention).
Year-by-year review of notable Democratic rules disputes/changes
As a result of the changes, there were challenges filed against more than 40% of the delegates selected for the convention. Perhaps the most notorious battle involved the revocation of the credentials of 58 Illinois delegates led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and the awarding of their seats to an alternate delegation led by Jesse Jackson. (Sources: The National Journal, August 23, 1980; St. Petersburg Times, July 17, 1988; Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections.)
In 1984, this had the effect of stabilizing support for "establishment" candidate Walter Mondale over "insurgent" candidates Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. Also adopted was a proposal allowing a presidential candidate to replace a disloyal delegate. Another revision was a decision to allow states to choose to keep a proportional representation system AND allow them to adopt a winner bonus plan that awarded the top vote-getter in each district one extra delegate.
Also in 1984, the DNC retained the three-month delegate selection "window" stretching from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in June. But to reduce the growing influence of early states in the nominating process, the Democrats required Iowa and New Hampshire to move their publicized events to late winter. Although these states retained their privileged status of "going first," party rules mandated their initial nominating rounds be held only eight days apart in 1984. (There were five weeks between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in 1980.) The DNC also set candidate filing deadlines of 30-90 days before the election and limited participation in the delegate selection process to Democrats only.
(SOURCE: Congressional Quarterly's Guide to U.S. Elections pp. 16-23 unless otherwise noted.)
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