Election Delegates Explained (Somewhat)


Choosing the chief executive of the greatest nation in history—the leader of the free world—is surely the most convoluted process in the realm of politics. But, maybe it should be that difficult to select a person to fill this highest position on earth. And, it is we Americans who get the marvelous privilege to participate in it. It all starts with the nominating of candidates who will compete for this virtually incomprehensible responsibility. Let’s try to demystify this process beginning with a historical perspective.

Can you imagine a non-partisan election of a U.S. president? That’s what our forefathers had in mind. The first few presidential elections were not about opposing philosophies. In fact, Hamilton and Madison writing in the Federalist Papers warned against political factions. Yet, by 1796, political caucuses formed to nominate two candidates of opposite persuasions. Throughout the 1800’s, state delegates were chosen by state or district party conventions and sent to national conventions to select a party candidate.

Election of the president by the electoral college system is described in the Constitution and will be the topic of a later post. However, the election of competing candidates for the office was not even envisioned, much less prescribed by the framers of the Constitution. Our presidential primary is the evolving process of the political party system. Through the first half of the 20th century, the national parties established the number of each state’s delegates who would meet at a national party convention to select a candidate. A conglomeration of various state processes was used to select these delegates. Delegates were not pledged to vote for a particular candidate. This system involved a lot of trading, favors, and negotiations. Not until 1968 did most states begin using popular-vote primaries to elect convention delegates pledged in varying degrees to specific candidates. Keep in mind that you have never voted directly for a presidential primary candidate. You have always voted for a group of delegates to go to your party’s national convention and vote for your candidate….or maybe not.

Today, the Republican and Democratic national committees establish their respective number of delegates from each state according to complex formulas. These formulas include such factors as number of state legislators, number of their own party members in state legislatures, etc. Republican delegates for the present election number 2472, while the Democrats choose to have a much higher number of 4765. Most delegates are associated with their Congressional districts. Each election, the party national committees make their own rules for choosing delegates and convention processes. The state party leaders decide on how the delegates will be pledged to candidates. This is where it gets rather complicated. Hardly any two states obligate their delegates alike. Some states are “winner-take-all” where all delegates are pledged to vote for the candidate who wins the majority of popular votes. For instance, in the California Republican primary, a candidate with 51 percent of the votes would get all 172 delegates—the single largest delegate prize in the country. Other states are “proportional” with the delegates pledged to each candidate based on the candidate’s proportion of popular votes. Within the winner-take-all and proportional states rules are numerous sub-rules.

In addition to the Congressional district delegates determined by district population, all states’ Republican parties have 10 at-large delegates (not associated with Congressional districts) and three Party Leader and Elected Officials (PLEO’s) delegates. Some states have bonus Republican delegates based on the states’ recent Republican advancements. Delegates from a few states without primaries number 112 who are the only Republican delegates not pledged to a candidate.

In addition to their Congressional district delegates, all states’ Democratic parties have at-large and PLEO delegates with criteria similar to the Republican party, but in greater numbers and based mostly on state population. Exclusive to the Democratic party is the super delegate category which consists of 714 political leaders not pledged to a particular candidate. Candidates claim these super delegates based on the results of state elections, but the delegates are not obligated in their vote. These super delegates comprise about 15 percent of the party’s total delegate count.

Confused yet? Let’s pause for perspective. After you have voted for a particular candidate in the primary election, if your state is a proportional state, a number of your state’s delegates will align with and vote for your candidate according to the number of other popular votes for that candidate. If yours is a winner-take-all state, your vote will only count if cast for the candidate who won the majority of votes.

But, what happens to your candidate’s delegates if the candidate suspends his or her campaign? Well, generally the candidate can either hang on to the delegates until the national convention, urge them to vote for another candidate, or release them to vote their heart at the convention. Suspending rather than dropping out of a campaign allows the candidate to continue raising funds and continue to claim delegates, even after suspension. Technically, a suspended candidate could reenter the race at the convention. Usually, by the end of the convention, all delegates will be released to make the vote unanimous for the candidate who has the majority of delegates, thereby showing party unity. But….what if the convention begins with no candidate having the majority? This year, the Republican candidates need 1237 delegates for a majority. The Democratic candidates need 2383 delegates to claim a majority. This July, the Republican national convention may very well arrive without a majority candidate. This would result in a contested convention.

In a contested convention, all delegates will vote an official first-round ballot to see whether a candidate gains a majority. What happens beyond that is the subject of my next post. Don’t miss it. You need to know what this would look like. “Follow” my blog so you won’t miss a post.

Of course, there is a lot more to the primary election delegate process than I have presented here, but this is a short tutorial that I hope will help you understand it a little better. Our freedom to vote is one of our most important freedoms and obligations as a citizen. We should know as much about the process as possible.

Click on Media above to find the link to your state’s delegate status.

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