WASHINGTON -- The Democratic National Committee, on an overwhelming vote, today rolled back a number of the national convention delegate selection reforms they installed during the stormy decade of the 1970s.
Adopting rules for their 1984 convention, the Democrats voted to give a big new block of delegate seats to party leaders and elected officials, to ease the restrictions on pledged delegates at the convention, to let states conduct modified 'winner-take-all' primaries and to shorten the primary and caucus season in presidential years.
The only real dispute over the new rules was on so-called 'loophole' primaries in which the winning candidate takes all the delegates at stake in individual congressial districts.
With only about 60 of the 347 members in opposition, the DNC agreed to restore 'loophole' primaries for 1984. They were used in 1976 but outlawed for 1980.
In the 12 years after they split wide open over Vietnam and lost the White House to Richard Nixon, the Democrats adopted a series of rules designed to end 'boss rule' and open the power structure to minorities, women and rank and file members. After losing the presidency again in 1980, there was a reaction to the reform process.
Arousing the most controversy was a proposal that let states hold primaries at or below the congressional district level in which presidential candidates could win all the delegates at stake.
These 'loophole' primaries, so named because they circumvent a requirement that delegates be divided among candidates on the basis of the vote they receive, were held in 13 states in 1976. In 1980, 'loophole' primaries were outlawed, except for Illinois and West Virginia, where Democrats were able to convince the party they were unable to get state laws changed.
At the behest of several larger states with strong political organizations, a 68-member rules commission headed by Gov. James Hunt of North Carolina proposed legalizing 'loophole' primaries again for 1984. It was this recommendation that party liberals fought on the grounds that it would make national conventions less representative of voter wishes.
The Hunt Commission, seeking some alternative short of 'loophole' primaries, also suggested giving states the option of awarding the winner of district-level primaries one 'bonus' delegate, with the remainder to be proportionally divided among the front runners. This had no major opposition.
Other changes proposed by the commission:
-Tighten an existing rule requiring primaries and caucuses to be held during three-month 'window' beginning in the second week of March. The commission recommended only two exceptions -- the Iowa caucuses, to be held no sooner than two weeks before the 'window,' and the New Hampshire primary, one week before the official season.
The effect of the proposal would be to require Iowa to hold its caucuses a month later and New Hampshire to run its primary a week later than they did in 1980.
-Add 550 unpledged voting delegate slots reserved for Democratic elected officials and party leaders. After 1968, Democrats virtually banned special treatment for their own leaders, requiring most of them to run for delegate seats like anyone else and to pledge themselves to a presidential candidate months before the national convention.
-Ease a controversial 'faithful delegate' rule that in 1980 gave candidates the right to remove a pledged delegate who defected from the convention floor. The new rule would require delegates only 'in all good conscience to reflect the views of those who elected them.'
There was little argument that the rules reforms installed in 1972, 1976 and 1980 did open the Democratic Party as intended, but they also had the effect of keeping regular party leaders and elected officials away from the conventions.
It was this reaction, which some observers said caused the wide gulf between Jimmy Carter and party leaders in Congress and the states, which the Hunt commission hoped to soften with the latest round of rules changes.