How the Democratic Party Became Undemocratic: The History of the Superdelagates

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Yves here. This Democracy Now! segment describes how the superdelegate system was a reaction to dangerous “outsiders” like McGovern and Carter becoming Democratic party nominees. Note that Carter was not all that liberal, particularly by the standards of the era. He started deregulating industries, despite the acknowledged lack of proof that it would be beneficial (see ECONNED for a long-form discussion).

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At the start of the 2016 election campaign. former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began the primaries with a more than 400-delegate lead by securing support from superdelegates—the 712 congressmembers, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite.

Now a new article from In These Times by Branko Marcetic uncovers “The Secret History of Superdelegates,” which were established by the Hunt Commission in 1982. We are joined by Jessica Stites, executive editor of In These Times and editor of the site’s June cover story, and Rick Perlstein, the Chicago-based reporter and author of several books, including “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.”

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. And we are on the road in Chicago, broadcasting from WYCC PBS Chicago. It has been an—it has been an eventful few days for the Democratic Party, from the contested Nevada state Democratic convention Saturday to the split results Tuesday night in primaries Kentucky—in both Kentucky and Oregon. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared victory against Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the primary on Tuesday in Kentucky, though it is razor-thin margin, while Sanders won a decisive victory in Oregon. Last night, Sanders spoke to about 12,000 supporters in Carson, California, directly addressing the Democratic Party leadership.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: In almost every case, whether it is a national poll or a state poll, we do much better against Trump than does Secretary Clinton. Just—poll just came out, I think it was yesterday, the state of Georgia, not a very good state for us: Trump was beating Secretary Clinton by four points; we were beating him by five points. AUDIENCE: Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: If the Democratic—if the Democratic Party wants to be certain that Donald Trump is defeated—and that, we must do—we, together, are the campaign to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: The relationship between the Sanders campaign and the Democratic Party leadership has been challenging from the start of the primary race, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began with a more than 400-delegate lead by securing support from superdelegates—the 712 congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite. Well, a new article from In These Times by Branko Marcetic uncovers “The Secret History of Superdelegates,” which were established by the Hunt Commission in 1982. Jessica Stites is executive editor of In These Times and editor of the site’s June cover story. Still with us, Rick Perlstein, Chicago-based reporter and author of several books, including Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Let’s start with you, Jessica. Explain the superdelegates, which has really become such a critical issue right now, how they came into being.

JESSICA STITES: Sure, yeah. Our reporter, Branko Marcetic, actually went down to the National Archives and dug up the transcripts of this entire commission, that debated for months about Democratic Party rules reforms and came up with the superdelegates as their answer. And basically, what had prompted this were the losses of Carter and McGovern, and so this fear that the Democratic Party wasn’t nominating sort of electable, winnable candidates. And so, these sort of party insiders sat down and said, “What do we do?” And their instinct was, “Well, we need to take control. We need to take control of the nominating process. We’re worried that sort of if we let the people decide through primaries, they’re going to pick the wrong person.” And so they instituted the superdelegate, who could act as a corrective, essentially, to the popular vote by, at the convention, casting votes for whomever they chose. And what really the sort of psychology you saw there—and this comes up a lot in the transcripts—is this fear of the activist or the outsider candidate that might disrupt the party, might not work with the Democrats the way they want once that person comes to the presidency, and so in this sort of sense that the elites kind of know best, and “we have a particular political acumen.”

AMY GOODMAN: And again, this was in response to?

JESSICA STITES: Well, McGovern and Carter. So, interestingly, they didn’t see Carter as an insider, in a nutty way. They saw him as this sort of Southern outsider who was mostly drawing officials from his own local circles, and he wasn’t working with them in the ways they wanted to—him to, when he was in office. So they were afraid of someone like that. And then they were afraid of a leftist activist, a grassroots activist. So those were their two fears. And they—also they were reacting, in large part, to the spread of the primary system, which had really become much more central after some 1968 reforms that were put into place.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a quote from Geraldine Ferraro, member of Congress from New York, first female vice-presidential candidate, who was a member of the Hunt Commission. She said during a meeting of the commission in November 1981, quote, “No one knows those people better than a Member of Congress. No one is better able to represent them at the convention than a Member of Congress, and no one is better able to get them to support a candidate, if they really try.” Explain, Jessica.

JESSICA STITES: Yes. So, that was the sort of tortured logic you kept seeing at the commission, where they said kind of the people who vote in primaries can’t represent the grassroots as well as congressmembers can, because congressmembers were originally elected. So, sort of this layer of representation is somehow going to help represent the grassroots, instead of letting people just vote for themselves. And it’s very odd and—

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, I mean, congressmembers aren’t elected by superdelegates.

JESSICA STITES: An excellent point. And at the time, to be fair, primary turnout was fairly low, and it’s still lower than a presidential election today, so that was their logic, as well: “We maybe got more votes than the primary.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to a quote from Cleta Deatherage, one of the members of the Hunt Commission, as well. She expressed concern about the division that a system of superdelegates might create, saying, quote, “you raise the question of creating different castes of delegates potentially, delegates which are chosen essentially by voters’ decisions for candidates in primaries or caucuses, and a different caste of delegates who in fact are exempt from that process and in fact carry on their own by a different set of standards … It gets you into a question of how those processes relate, and it gets to an essential question of legitimacy.”

JESSICA STITES: Yeah, she was really prescient, because that is exactly the criticism of superdelegates today. And it’s—they’re very unpopular, and there really is a movement rising up to say, “Why should the Democratic Party have this sort of final deciding vote instead of listening to the will of the people?”

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about superdelegates in relation now to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

JESSICA STITES: Sure. Well, what’s so interesting—and we’re seeing this especially after the results this morning—is that neither of them are on track to a decisive victory based only on primaries and caucuses. So, they would need to get 2,383 pledged delegates coming out of that process in order to just be the nominee. And that means superdelegates will matter at the convention. They will be the ones who ultimately tip someone over the edge. And what we’re seeing from Sanders is this kind of fascinating pivot. So he was initially very much against superdelegates, because they had given Hillary Clinton this incredible momentum starting out in the race, which I think is the main criticism of superdelegates, is they give someone a sort of unfair advantage by making it look like they’re already ahead before the race begins. But now Sanders is saying, “Well, you’ve got this class of people who are supposed to be making sure the Democratic Party has a winning candidate. That’s their reason for being.” And that was very much what we saw in the transcripts, was, you know, if something should happen midstream and the candidate that is the front-runner in the primaries and caucuses looks like they can’t win—you know, maybe they have a scandal—we want to be able to correct that. And so, Sanders is saying, “Well, something unexpected happened: Donald Trump is the nominee of the Republican Party. Democrats need to react to that, and I am polling better than Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in some key states.” He was talking about, I think, Georgia in that clip, but he’s—that’s happening in Ohio, which is a really important, obviously, state. And so that’s his case to the superdelegates, is, “Well, if you have this weird system where you can trump the popular vote, isn’t this the time to use it?”

AMY GOODMAN: And the move to reform the superdelegate system? Do you see this all changing?

JESSICA STITES: You know, that—that’s a great question right now. So Sanders is no longer talking about that, because he’s trying to court the superdelegates. But I don’t think it’s off the table at all. We had an op-ed actually run along with our cover story, by Larry Cohen, who is the former president of the Communication Workers of America but also a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign. And he is calling very strongly for the—at the convention, for the Democrats to abolish or reform the superdelegate system. And I think there’s definitely a faction within the Sanders campaign that wants that.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Rick Perlstein, about how the Democrats and their process compares to the Republicans?

RICK PERLSTEIN: They’re similar. They—when the Democrats reformed their system, you know, between 1968 and 1972, it was kind of seen as this was the direction history was going: more democracy, you know, less smoke-filled rooms. So, a system in both parties that had been kind of mostly caucuses and conventions and some primaries became mostly primaries and then some caucuses and conventions.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened in Nevada? Can you, Jessica Stites, talk about what we just saw? I mean, there’s a police line in front of the stage?

JESSICA STITES: Yeah. I think that—

AMY GOODMAN: And, Rick, would you like to weigh in on that?


RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, I mean, you know, we saw—we saw the footage. It was a very contested convention. The Clinton folks say the Sanders folks knew the rules in advance and then complained when the rules didn’t advantage them. The Sanders folks say that basically we have an establishment that’s trying to assert their powers. I think, when I look back historically, I see the attempts to exacerbate these divisions as possibly a strategy of Donald Trump and the Republicans. He has an ally named Roger Stone, who was part of Watergate. The whole strategy of Watergate all through 1972 was to create divisions that were based in real divisions, but to exacerbate them. So, like a Roger Stone-type figure would steal letterhead from one of the Democratic candidates, write a letter accusing another Democratic candidate of cheating, and then get that out to the media. Right? So, the idea is, if Democrats can’t get back together in the general election, then the Democrats can’t win. Now, these divisions are real, and the anger is real, but the exploitation of it is very similar to kind of what the FBI did in COINTELPRO. They take real divisions and try and turn them into divisions that make it impossible for people to work together. So we need to be careful about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Stone is the source on so many of the National Enquirer stories against

RICK PERLSTEIN: That’s right. That’s right. My next article is about how—

AMY GOODMAN: —against Ted Cruz.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah, Donald Trump partakes of a reactionary tradition within gossip politics, something like the National Enquirer. I actually have a document in which Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s longtime aide, tries to pitch Ronald Reagan as a columnist for the National Enquirer in 1975. So there’s a continuity there.

AMY GOODMAN: Back to Hunt Commission. Your final observations, Jessica Stites, as you dug into the documents and your reporter did? It was named after?

JESSICA STITES: Oh, Hunt, he was a former governor, I think, and he was chairing the—no, is that wrong, Rick? You’re making history faces.

RICK PERLSTEIN: No, I think so. No, no, I think it was a South Carolina maybe.

JESSICA STITES: I believe so. That sounds right.

RICK PERLSTEIN: But that was kind of it: He was a Southerner, right?

JESSICA STITES: Yes. He was chairing the commission. You know, I think superdelegates are not the only thing wrong with our electoral process. And one of the great things about kind of opening the door to questioning superdelegates, which are a pretty easy reform for the Democratic Party to make if they so choose, is, what else is wrong? Why are so few Americans voting in our general election?

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, we’re talking about less than 80 percent—no, more than 80 percent of people are not voting in the primaries and caucuses.

JESSICA STITES: Yeah, and that is a real problem. And there are things that can be done to address that. I mean, Rob Richie of FairVote has, I think, a great proposal, which is have one nationwide primary on one day—one person, one vote—and that will decide the Democratic candidate. So, there are things we can do, and it doesn’t—this is just a party process. This does not require changing the Constitution.

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  1. EndOfTheWorld

    The way I look at it, it really does not matter how the superdelegate system came about—what matters is it exists today. As soon as I get a chance, I will go down to the county courthouse and change my registration to repug. As repugnant as they are, even the repugs don’t have the odious institution of superdelegates—correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. P. Stein

      Only the republicans have even less democratic primary races, as they have winner-takes-all primaries, while the democrats are always proportional.

      I admit, the superdelegate system is wrong. But I believe a division over it is superfluous, as HRC won more votes even without them. And although the Bernie campaign started off by accusing HRC of having so many superdelegates, now the Bernie or Bust crowd is calling for superdelegates to vote en masse for Bernie, despite the fact that HRC won a majority of the votes…

      1. Lambert Strether

        I don’t buy the “They’re hypocrites because they’re playing by the rules!” argument. I think it’s whinging. It’s like dissing the defense for deking the offense into an offsides violation.

        1. Lambert Strether

          No, statisticians claim that voting machines are flipping votes. I understand the passion this issue rightly arouses, but the overheated claims of some advocates lose credibility.

          Another way of saying this is that if humans are flipping the votes — and some humans must, at some point — then the secret is very closely held.

      2. aab

        She has not “won the majority of votes.” That’s an inaccurate Clinton talking point which excludes every single person who participated in the caucuses, many of which Sanders won by gigantic margins.

        And she has used her superdelegate lead to suppress the vote since before voting even started, in addition to all the OTHER types of suppression she and the party elite have engaged in, and of course the proven vote switching, very probable vote switching, and other types of election theft of which there is both numerical and testimonial evidence.

        So the system is set up such the superdelegates must side with one of them to determine the nominee. If the race had been reasonably aboveboard, I would side with giving it to the one with the pledged delegate lead. But it hasn’t been aboveboard. And with people having left the party over the past 25 years in great measure because they don’t like the Clintons or Clintonism, registered Democrats are now less than 30% of the electorate. If the party is NOT deeply corrupt, the obvious solution here is to nominate Sanders, who demonstrably can beat Trump, while Clinton demonstrably cannot. He brings people back to the party, particularly the next generation that the Democratic Party has been counting on for ages. Nominate Clinton, and the party is setting itself up to lose now, and for years to come.

        What’s nice about this is the clarity. Superdelegates can save the party, or confirm it is corrupt.

  2. cnchal

    . . .when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began with a more than 400-delegate lead by securing support from superdelegates—the 712 congressmen, senators, governors and other elected officials who often represent the Democratic Party elite.

    Does that imply that there are 300+ super delegates that didn’t pledge their vote to Hillary?

    1. B1whois

      At that time, it appears so. More have pledged since, but “pledges” are not final until the july convention

  3. Jerry

    The idea of a single national primary means the one with the most name recognition has a tremendous advantage. Bernie would have been easily eliminated. Clinton would not have won in 1992.

    Obama would have lost To Hillary in 2008. Could Hillary have beaten McCain?

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      She would have won in 2008, every Kerry state plus Ohio and Colorado, but the slight Senate majority would have been improved by 1 to 3 seats and there would have been a smaller House majority. As it turned out, none of this mattered.

      Minnesota and Alaska wouldn’t have been pick ups. Liddy Dole would still be a Senator.

      Colorado would have been close. I’m not sure about Oregon. I believe the GOP incumbent was well liked. New voters would have been needed to beat him.

      Louisiana would have been lost.

      Virginia and New Hampshire would have been the only sure pick ups, and New Hampshire would have needed support.

    2. katiebird

      Wouldn’t that depend on when that primary was and when various candidates began campaigning?

      1. Jerry

        Candidates get attention when they win, or nearly win. If there is only a single round, the richest or best known is a sure bet to win. In a crowded field like the Repubs had this year or the Dems had in 1988, someone could win with 20% of the vote.

        1. B1whois

          So there is value in a narrowing process. How about 2-3 stages of Universal voting? What is done in other democracies ?

          1. Jerry

            I think most others are not like ours where we elect the Pres independently of the Congress.

            Others are parliamentary with a prime minister who is chosen by members of the legislative body. Rather like super delegates, now that I think of it!

          2. Darthbobber

            Most countries with parliamentary systems don’t have a party “membership” composed of people who are members when they say they are, still less non-members voting on who the standard bearer will be.

            1. Dwight

              Yes, but those countries have proportional representation, which means their citizens can join a party which generally meets their policy preferences and moral standards. US citizens are forced to choose from the candidates of the two parties that pretend to be private associations.

  4. philnc

    “Could Hillary have beaten John McCain?” No. Well, so long as he didn’t run with a certain Alaskan governor.

    One big national primary would be a really bad idea, for reasons already stated.

    I see two ways forward: remove the government from the process altogether by making the parties run things entirely in private without the use of public funds and processes (no more free voting machines or sheriffs officers to enforce their will) or totally revamp the public electoral process so it is uniform and completely open nation wide. If the parties want to operate like private clubs they can do that on their own dime. In any case they also need to lose the benefit of discriminatory ballot access rules that lock out third parties. Finally, the burden of proving who is ineligable to vote should be on the government, not the citizen. Voting is a right, not a privilege. The absurdity of forcing people to use a photo driver license as a voter ID card or having to pay ridiculously high fees to obtain a government document like a birth certificate ($60 from the contractor employed by NY State to do their online processing) is patent. What’s next, internal passports? (Yes, I realize that with respect to mass interstate transport, air and train, we already have that in effect). In that case, we’ve all become Soviets (except Soviet identity cards were free). Or something worse.

  5. Brooklin Bridge

    I didn’t get any historical sense of the financial. corporate, and establishment capture of the DNC and it’s super delegate system from this interview. Without that, which is so obvious and deep rooted in the present, this discussion comes across as weak tea. The problem with the Democratic party isn’t so much an unfair system, although one supposes a house cleaning is always a good thing; but rather, the real problem is total capture by vested interests that have have opposite goals to those of the public, goals that are inimical to any sort of democratic process and must rely instead on propaganda, the main stream media, DWShultz&Co, all manner of corruption and falsehoods such as outright obstruction of the voting process. Such capture would make ANY system, no matter how carefully drawn up, totally undemocratic.

    I had the same reaction to the short snippet on what happened in Nevada. Amy mentioned the cops all lined up in a row which should have started a good discussion, but instead, Rick Perlstein launched into a discussion of some sort of Republican conspiracy to hi-jack the process. Huh??? Perhaps there is a grain of truth in there, but the more immediate and obvious conclusion to me was that the DNC was doing a pretty good job of hi-jacking the process all by itself and brown shirt type police surrounding the event speaks volumes and so should be addressed first and foremost in any discussion of what happend.

    1. ChiGal

      This seems to suggest that historically there WAS no golden age of small d Democrats. Rather things were less so prior to the 68-72 reforms. Fewer primaries, more smoke-filled back rooms…?

  6. flora

    A quibble:

    “…describes how the superdelegate system was a reaction to dangerous “outsiders” like McGovern and Carter becoming Democratic party nominees. Note that Carter was not all that liberal, particularly by the standards of the era. ” – Yves intro

    “…basically, what had prompted this were the losses of Carter and McGovern, and so this fear that the Democratic Party wasn’t nominating sort of electable, winnable candidates. And so, these sort of party insiders sat down and said, “What do we do?” And their instinct was, “Well, we need to take control. We need to take control of the nominating process. We’re worried that sort of if we let the people decide through primaries, they’re going to pick the wrong person. ” ” -Jessica Stites

    That’s the basic narrative. What is left out, and is important imo, is that the Hunt Commission was in 1982. In 1979-80 then Dem sitting Sen. Edward Kennedy challenged sitting Dem Pres. Jimmy Carter for the party’s 1980 nomination to run against Reagan. There was a bitter floor fight at the Dem convention and the Kennedy supporters left feeling cheated by the convention committee. The convention committee had decided that a New Deal style liberal like Kennedy was the wrong sort of person. Angered Kennedy delegates were promised there would be reforms in future. The only reforms were to make sure all challengers to the committee’s pre-decided upon candidate would be quashed.

    Interesting that Kennedy was a New Deal type liberal. I think there’s a strong chance he could have beat Reagan and there would have been no Reagan democrats. The Carter-Kennedy race needs to be included in any analysis of the Hunt Commission.

    1. Darthbobber

      It was probably Ted at that time who would have benefited from a superdelegate system. If you look at that race, you’ll see it had two distinct phases. Early on, Carter benefited from the “rally round” effect of the hostage crisis. (and Ted picking maybe not the best moment to remind people of what a repressive regime the Shah had run) as well as a dreadful interview Ted had given. But as the hostage thing dragged on and people remembered their disaffection on domestic issues, Kennedy won heavily during the latter part of the campaign.
      (and unlike Sanders today, Kennedy probably had as many or more party insiders and pros on board as Carter.)

    2. jmpitt

      I don’t think Kennedy would have won in 1980 although he might have run better than Carter. The country was in a foul mood and wanted big change. It was a landslide that was a repudiation of the party in power which was the Dems. It is sort of the same argument I have heard about Hillary versus McCain. She’d have won too but probably by a smaller margin than Obama.

  7. ewmayer

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Rick Perlstein, about how the Democrats and their process compares to the Republicans?

    RICK PERLSTEIN: They’re similar…

    Come again? Look, the GOP establishment may be a steaming bag of douches, but they have no corrupt-on-its-face superdelegate system.

  8. jmpitt

    This is a really interesting history of Super Delegates and I learned quite a bit. I want to start by saying I think Super Delegates suck and I think they should be eliminated but the reality is Super Delegates have basically been a non-factor since they were created including this year. They are largely a free trip to the convention for elected officials. I also think that people miss the real importance of Super Delegate endorsements and it has little to do with the convention. Super Delegates are for the most part elected officials and they have political organizations which they can mobilize for their choice for President. These elected officials would be supporting a candidate, most likely Hillary Clinton, regardless and lending their help in their states, cities and districts. This is where they really matter. and there is very little that can be done to stop this role.

    What I find interesting is that no one is talking about the other undemocratic part of the process – Caucuses. I have been active in Presidential campaigns since 1984 and I have always disliked caucuses even though they have sometimes benefited the candidate I supported. They are voter suppression on steroids, have opaque rules and are ripe for gaming. I am still amazed at Cruz’s games on the R side this year, Ron Paul’s games in 2012 and the fact that in ’08 Obama was somehow able to get more delegates than Clinton in Nevada despite losing on caucus day. The reality is last weekend in Nevada doesn’t happen with a Primary.

    I would recommend the following changes to the Democratic Party nomination process moving forward in order of importance:

    1. Eliminate all Caucuses and move to Primaries everywhere. It is more democratic with a small d, expands participation and eliminates games later on in the process.

    2. Eliminate Super Delegates.

    1. aab

      Except the worst examples of election theft this year on the Democratic side have all been primaries.

      If they switch to same day registration, paper ballots, counted in public with volunteer observers representing all campaigns who can REALLY observe, I would also push for removing caucuses.

      1. jmpitt

        I have worked on campaigns in 3 states – NY, PA and OR – and all permit public participation in the counting of paper ballots. Not sure which states don’t.

        Also, I have checked the results and only 5 states – KY, IL, MO, MI, MA – were even close enough where any of this would even matter. And switching a few percentages either way wouldn’t fundamentally alter the race given the proportional allocation of delegates.

        Some states clearly have worse election laws than others and I am all for reforming the system. Any problems aside, primaries are a much better and clearer way to choose delegates. They are much harder to game and don’t end up in a situation where one candidate wins on election day but the other candidate gets more delegates b/c they understand how to play the game behind the scenes.

  9. stan davis

    These people know virtually nothing about the Hunt Commission & “super delegates.” Their remarks were a farce and display of ignorance. Hunt was the Governor of NORTH CAROLINA. In fact he served four terms as that state’s governor and, to this day, that is North Carolina’s longest period for one person to be (or have been) a sitting/elected governor. All these “40ish” political morons, passing themselves off as experts is just embarrassing. The “dumbing down” of America is on parade when these clowns hold a pen, compose an article or open their mouths. I was fortunate enough to have studied K-12 during the early ’50s through mid-’60s and college from ’60s through ’70s. I knew, at age eight, about the Brits and U.S. involvement in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Iran and the installation of the Shah–something that good ol’ Ike backed (Harry Truman had refused U.S. anti democracy coup ideas from Brits &, what later became BP). We all took civics and world/American history classes. Much of the “activity” in the Middle East” over the past century, can be directly traced to colonial British & American incursions. However, as this interview shows, these people are so shallow in their thinking, they cannot even research and figure out when, where, what, why & how (tenants of journalism 101) “super-delegates” and the Hunt Commission were developed for a specific reason. In fact, one of Bernie Sanders’ top advisors was a “pro-super delegate” Hunt Commission member. See if you can figure out who he/she/they are/is/were. Maybe an inverted pyramid and a slide rule could help. lol

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