Posted on 15 February 2012.
Did you know that, technically speaking, all of the voting that has and is currently taking place at the primaries and caucuses across the country is actually not the final deciding factor for how presidential candidates are chosen?
It’s true. Presidential candidates are ultimately chosen at conventions by delegates from the political parties — and the will of the primary and caucus voters can theoretically be overturned.
This is the second part of my two-part series examining the presidential election process in America. In the first installment, I discussed the absurdity that is the Electoral College and called for it to be abandoned.
In this installment I would like to examine this ridiculous process of presidential candidate nomination by delegates.
Believe it or not, this topic is so dense and confusing that I cannot possibly discuss every aspect of it substantively here (which is perhaps indicative of how crazy the system is).
The delegate selection rules, and the manner in which nominating conventions operate, have changed considerably over the years and have even changed in subtle ways between every presidential election.
But I will try to do my best to provide a condensed explanation of the process based on the current rules.
A delegate is basically someone picked to represent his or her political party at the nominating convention. How delegates are chosen varies from state to state and between the political parties.
For the Republican Party, some states will automatically allot a certain number of delegates based on the number of congressional districts while other states allot delegates to the state as a whole. It’s also possible for bonus delegates to be awarded if the state has a Republican majority in the state legislature, elected Republicans for Congress or as governor or voted for a Republican in the last presidential election.
The Republicans currently have 2,380 delegates, and a candidate needs 1,191 delegates to become the nominee.
Many states use a winner-take-all system for their Republican primaries, such as Florida, meaning if a candidate wins the state’s primary all of the state’s delegates will pledge to vote for that candidate at the nominating convention.
However, some states, such as New York and Texas, use a proportional system that allows the delegates to be divvied up based on how many votes each candidate received in the primary.
Although most of the Republican delegates will be determined state to state either through primaries or caucuses, there are also about 500 delegates that are considered “unbound,” meaning there is no legal obligation for which candidate they must vote, and they are free to decide as they please come the convention.
Many of the unbound delegates come from states with non-binding primaries and caucuses. As a result, those contests are basically only cosmetic and the delegates can actually decide for themselves at the convention.
Non-binding primaries and caucuses generally cost each state millions of dollars to hold and essentially amount to an incredibly expensive straw poll.
The Democratic primaries and caucuses, on the other hand, have a uniform system that awards all delegates proportionally, though candidates must reach a threshold of above 15 percent.
Each Democratic state delegation is required to have an equal balance of men and women and even comply with certain affirmative-action policies as set by the Democratic National Committee. However, each state is free to come up with their own delegate-selection plan that conforms to these requirements and have it approved by the DNC .
Democrats currently have 4,049 delegates, and a candidate needs 2,025 delegates to become the nominee.
However, the Democrats also have so-called “superdelegates” that are similar to unbound delegates and are free to vote for whichever candidate they want.
There are approximately 800 superdelegates, and they include all the members of the DNC, all current Democratic members of Congress, current Democratic governors, and party leaders such as former Democratic presidents, vice presidents and congressional leaders.
Also, the regular Democratic delegates awarded through primaries and caucuses are considered “pledged” delegates and are technically under no legal obligation to cast their votes at the convention for whomever won their respective states — though pledged delegates rarely vote for a candidate that did not win the state.
If a candidate does not win enough delegate votes to secure either the Republican or Democratic nomination, then the parties will have what is known as a “brokered convention.”
In the situation of a brokered convention, essentially, all bets are off. The primary and caucus results are thrown out the window, and the candidate will be selected through a dizzying series of horse-trading, power-brokering re-votes on the convention floor.
The last Democratic brokered convention was in 1952 with Adlai Stevenson eventually becoming the nominee even though Estes Kefauver went into the convention with more delegate votes.
And the last Republican brokered convention was in 1948 with Thomas Dewey eventually winning the nomination after struggling to defeat Robert Taft.
In 2008, the Democrats almost had a brokered convention, but Barak Obama managed to edge out Hillary Clinton by the time of the convention.
And it looks increasingly possible that a brokered convention might be possible for the upcoming 2012 Republican convention if Mitt Romney doesn’t safely secure the nomination.
So, if it isn’t abundantly clear yet, this system of delegate nomination is totally insane, hopelessly outdated, needlessly overcomplicated and utterly inconsistent from state to state and party to party.
Granted, reforming this system would be next to impossible considering the political parties are so set in their ways, but let’s consider some ways we could fix this madness.
Perhaps the easiest solution would be to just have a binding nationwide primary on a single day a few months before the general election that would select the candidates for all political parties through overall popular votes.
Using this system, we could either get rid of delegates altogether or make their function non-binding and just for-show at the conventions.
Another way would be to create a consistent nationwide system for delegate allocation, requiring a proportional system in every state, and the delegates must vote in the conventions however their respective states decided in the primaries.
Whatever we do, I would hope we can all acknowledge that this current system is ridiculous and badly needs reform.
W. Paul Smith