One Person, One Vote? Not Exactly.
The Democratic Party Primary has been top of mind this week. After ten years as a registered Democrat (I actually switched my party affiliation to Republican for this primary) and an education in the American school system, I thought I knew how the Democratic Party chooses its presidential candidate. I assumed that the Party uses a democratic process to choose its Nominee – whoever the majority of party members vote for (with a nod to the sovereignty of the states through a delegate system that resembles the Electoral College) gets to run for president. Apparently, this is not how it works at all.
A colleague of mine that is active in the Democratic Party took the time to correct my naiveté. It turns out the people going to the polls aren’t the only ones that decide who makes a run for the presidency. I found this shocking. How is this possible?
Well, there are these people called “superdelegates” and “unpledged delegates” whose individual vote counts like that of roughly twenty thousand regular Americans. Seriously, I am not making this up. So these special delegates consist of Democratic Party members who are in the House of Representatives, in the Senate and who are governors. This might make sense under some construct, since these individuals play some larger, elected role in government in America. However, these individuals are the minority of unpledged delegates. Most unpledged delegates achieve that status by being part of the Democratic National Committee or by being a distinguished person in the party. These unpledged delegates are there because of their fundraising prowess or because they were valuable to past presidents or are kingmakers in the Party. So the numbers work out as follows – there are about 4,000 delegates that a candidate can win, about 800 of those have this unpledged status. One would expect that if the Party can field a list of real candidates that results in a competitive, tight primary, those 800 unpledged delegates can swing the nomination to whomever the Party leadership wants. That was certainly new to me.
Now, the unpledged delegates don’t always vote for whomever they want and sometimes they follow the wishes of the voters in their designated states. However, already about 250 of these unpledged delegates have put their support behind a candidate – thereby ignoring the preferences of common voters. So when John Kerry publicly announced his support for Barack Obama in South Carolina last week, there was a media frenzy about campaign strategy, positioning, etc…and I remember thinking to myself, who cares which candidate John Kerry endorses? I mean, are there people who are now going to go out of their way to vote for Barack Obama because of this endorsement? Obviously, I didn’t know much about the Primary process – the endorsement was extremely important, for a reason that was not mentioned in a single major American newspaper, it was worth about twenty thousand votes. Obama would have had to otherwise get those votes from regular Americans.
This all gets more interesting when you consider that Hillary Clinton currently has three times as many unpledged delegates as Barack Obama does – so Obama will have to win substantially more than 50% of the popular vote among Party members in order to win the Democratic Party Nomination. To make matters more opaque, Florida and Michigan have moved their primaries up in violation of Party rules and have been stripped of their delegates. No one really knows if such action is legally possible. Since Clinton will probably win these states and the Democratic Primary will probably end up being close, the possibilities for controversy here are endless before we get to the finish line. In the end, the ultimate Democratic Party Nominee will more likely be the product of side deals within the Democratic National Committee than victory at the polls. I hate to start on a down note, but that is kind of disappointing, don’t you think?