U.S. Elections Explained: What’s a Delegate?

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Every fifth grader knows how to have a democratic election. When deciding on whether to play kick ball or four square for instance, the preference of the majority rules. Each student has a vote; these votes are cast (heads down on desks, arms up); votes are tallied; and the sport (or whatever is up for decision) with the most votes wins. Simple. Straightforward. No explanations or mathematic algorithms needed.

Why democratic elections at the national level have failed to adhere to this simple logic is beyond me. Our presidential primaries are perhaps one of the most discombobulated occurrences sanctioned by a government body, followed only by the presidential election itself. We have constructed a system that only a political wonk can figure out, and only a super delegate (more on that later) could love.

Basic Math
Each party designates the number of delegates a state has based on population and other factors, including party strength. The overall amount of Democratic delegates is larger, so they have more delegates per state. For instance, in 2008, California has 441 Democratic delegates and 173 Republican delegates; in Texas, there are 228 Democratic delegates and 140 Republican. In the primaries, the presidential candidates are trying to rack up as many delegates as they can.

The candidate with the majority of delegates will win the party nomination. To make things confusing, the two parties do not have the same number of total delegates, and this total changes every year. This year there are 4,049 for the Democrats and 2,380 for the Republicans. That means, in order to win the nomination, a Democratic candidate must win 2,025 delegates and a Republican must win 1,191 delegates. Some states, like Michigan and Florida, were stripped of their delegates because of issues between the national and states parties.

The delegates attend their party’s national convention to cast their votes. The Democrats will have their convention on August 25 in Denver, Colorado; the Republicans on September 1st in St. Paul, Minnesota.

At the national conventions, there are two different kinds of delegates in attendance: the pledged and the unpledged.

Pledged Delegates
The majority of delegates from both parties are considered to be pledged; that is, they must vote for a specific candidate at the national convention. (Though this vote is taken in good conscience and is only “pledged” for the first vote). Around 80 percent of the Democratic and Republicans delegates are pledged.

For the Democrats, the number of pledged delegates a candidate receives is roughly proportional to the primary or caucus vote totals. This is divided differently in different states. Some of the delegates are split by how many votes a candidate received in the state totals, and some are by split by congressional districts. Most states have primaries, where individuals cast votes on a designated election night. However, some states, like Iowa, have caucuses, where people gather to support their choice of candidates (and sometimes raise their hands to express this support). Other states, like Texas, have both a primary and a caucus. In their Democratic election, voters in the primaries will assign only 126 of the 228 delegates on election night. The rest are allocated by a complex caucus system that involves mathematical equations and an advanced degree to figure out (where are those fifth graders?).

For the Democrats, a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the votes in a state to receive delegates. For instance, say Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and Kucinich were all running in a state, and they received 35, 35, 20, and 10 percent of the votes, respectively. Kucinich would receive no delegates, because he failed to get the 15 percent minimum, and the remaining delegates would be split between the other three candidates.

Republicans have different ways of allocating delegates. Some states have a “winner-take-all” delegate award, meaning that if a candidate has the most votes in that state, he will receive all the delegates. Others states award delegates based on wins in certain congressional districts. Rules vary by state.

Unpledged Delegates
Unpledged delegates can vote for whomever they want to at the national convention. They are often referred to as the “super delegates.”

Usually the super delegates don’t matter that much, because one candidate typically has a substantial lead. Their vote would normally go to this candidate; that person may also have enough delegates as to render their vote useless. But this year’s Democratic race is much closer, and that’s why we’re hearing so much about the super delegates. There will be 796 unpledged delegates at the Democratic national convention, so if the delegate count remains close, they could have a large say in the final nomination.

Who are these super delegates? Essentially, they are the party big wigs. Their position was created in 1980 to ensure that the leaders of the Democratic Party were given a big say in who was elected. For the Democrats, super delegates are often governors, ex-presidents, national committee members, and members of Congress. As the party gets more successful (e.g., they have more members in Congress), they will have more super delegates.

The Republicans’ unpledged delegates are a bit different. Some are high-ranking officials in the Republican National Committee. Some states consider all of their delegates as unpledged and others have no unpledged candidates at all. The Republicans will have 463 unpledged delegates at their national convention.

To Make Things Worse …
Because of the complex system of counting delegates (especially on the Democratic side), different news outlets report different tallies. For instance, MSNBC reports that Obama has 1168 delegates and Clinton 1018; the New York Times has Obama with 1117 and Clinton with 1112; the Associated Press projects Obama with 1319, Clinton with 1245. On the Republican side, McCain has 827, 942, or 884 delegates, depending on who’s counting. Most of this will be resolved come the national convention, or at least we hope.

Yet what may not be resolved is just how big of a say the super delegates have. Their votes have decided very few elections, and thus, their elitist status has been ignored or overlooked. But if the Democratic elections come down to the brass tacks, certainly who they decide to support—at this point Clinton supposedly has more super delegates in her camp than does Obama—could cause major uproar. The states whose delegates were stripped may protest, the delegates may veto the super delegates’ votes, and voters may be upset that the candidate chosen by the people was not the candidate who got the nomination. Hopefully it won’t come down to this. Democracy is supposed to be in the hands of the people, but if it all rests on the votes of the elite, our hands seem tied.

Even after this attempt to explain what a delegate is, I’m still not exactly sure why we have them. I’m wishing I could put my head back down on the desk and just raise my hand.

Related Story: Poll: The Influence of Super Delegates


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