Yes, The Delegate Allocation Process Is “Undemocratic.” So What?
There are many aspects of the way delegates to the party convention are chosen that is "undemocratic," but it's unclear why this is a problem.
With Republicans headed toward a potential contested convention for the first time in sixty years and supporters of Bernie Sanders beginning to realize that their candidates ability to win caucuses and small-state primaries isn’t helping at all in his effort to even come close to Hillary Clinton in the delegate count, many Americans are learning for the first time just how convoluted and arguably undemocratic the delegate selection process in both parties actually is:
When it comes to nominating presidential candidates, it turns out the world’s foremost democracy is not so purely democratic.
For decades, both major parties have used a somewhat convoluted process for picking their nominees, one that involves ordinary voters in only an indirect way. As Americans flock this year to outsider candidates, the kind most hindered by these rules, they are suddenly waking up to this reality. And their confusion and anger are adding another volatile element to an election being waged over questions of fairness and equality.
In Nashville a week ago, supporters of Donald J. Trump accused Republican leaders of trying to stack the state’s delegate slate with people who were anti-Trump. The Trump campaign posted the cellphone number of the state party chairman on Twitter, leading him to be inundated with calls. Several dozen people showed up at the meeting at which delegates were being named, banged on the windows and demanded to be let in.
Backers of Senator Bernie Sanders, bewildered at why he keeps winning states but cannot seem to cut into Hillary Clinton’s delegate count because of her overwhelming lead with “superdelegates,” have used Reddit and Twitter to start an aggressive pressure campaign to flip votes.
Javier Morillo, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a superdelegate from Minnesota, said he discovered his email posted on a website called a “Superdelegate Hit List.”The list had an illustration of a donkey, the party’s symbol, with two crossbow arrows behind its head. “I was a little annoyed,” he said.
Mr. Morillo, who is backing Mrs. Clinton, said he tried at first to reply to all the emails beseeching him to switch his support to Mr. Sanders, the Vermont senator who won 62 percent of the vote in Minnesota’s caucuses. But the volume has gotten so high lately, he said, “I haven’t been able to keep up.”
If supporters of Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders feel stymied by the delegate process, that is because it was designed years ago precisely to make it difficult for candidates like them to become their nominee — candidates who party leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, could never win in November.
Like with any private members-only club — political parties are not official government entities — the party leaders exercise considerable control over which candidate gets their endorsement and the attendant privilege of using their political infrastructure, financial support and loyal voter base, without which winning in November is all but impossible.
In the earliest days of the republic, members of Congress determined the presidential nominees, cutting ordinary Americans out of the process. The national convention system has evolved over more than a century and a half to gradually decentralize the decision making.
But not completely. The role of Democratic superdelegates was created after the 1980 election to ensure that rank-and-file voters could not easily vote in an activist candidate. Superdelegates include major Democratic elected officials like governors and members of Congress; national and state party leaders; and notable party figures like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Democrats have added more superdelegates over the years, and this year they will make up 16 percent of all delegates.
Each of their votes has equal weight to delegates awarded through primaries and caucuses. In New Hampshire, for example, the site of Mr. Sanders’s first big victory, he won about 150,000 votes and 15 traditional delegates. Hillary Clinton won nine traditional delegates. But because six of New Hampshire’s superdelegates are supporting her (the other two are uncommitted), she is effectively tied with Mr. Sanders in the state.
Republicans have far fewer superdelegates. But the way the party conducts elections — a complex, layered system of contests that selects local delegates who in turn select state delegates who then vote for national delegates — can be difficult for newcomers without sophisticated operations to penetrate, as Mr. Trump is discovering.
“It’s hard to start explaining now,” said Curly Haugland, the Republican national committeeman in North Dakota who has tried to draw attention this year to the important role that delegates play. Mr. Haugland summed up the collective realization of many voters this way: “These primaries weren’t really worth much — except maybe to spend a billion dollars.”
Even if Mr. Trump wins a state, the delegates who are supposed to vote for him at the national convention might privately support one of his opponents, and if no candidate clinches the nomination after the convention’s first ballot, these delegates are usually freed from the requirement that they represent the preference of the voters back home. The campaign of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has been working in many states to get his supporters named as delegates, even if they must vote for Mr. Trump on the first ballot.
Though some voters are only now discovering that sometimes their choices amount to little more than a Facebook “like,” party leaders today say the rules are nothing new.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, pointed out that superdelegates have been around “since 1984, the year I graduated high school,” and have never been a decisive factor. Sean Spicer, the chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, said of the rules, “This is a process that has existed since the 1800s,” even though he acknowledged, “It is incumbent on us to explain it.”
But the sense of futility is building among supporters of Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders, both of whom have strong appeal with people who already believe that a rigged political system leaves them voiceless and disenfranchised.
“It’s people who are in charge keeping their friends in power,” said Tom Carroll, 32, a union plumber who lives in Bethpage, N.Y., summing up how he viewed the electoral system. Mr. Carroll, who was at Mr. Trump’s rally on Long Island on Wednesday, expressed irritation at a system that does not always abide by the one person, one vote concept. “In other countries, we pay to fix their election systems and they get their fingers colored with fingerprint ink when they vote,” he added. “What’s the point of everyone voting if the delegates are going to do what they want?”
Even if superdelegates did not exist, Mr. Sanders would still trail Mrs. Clinton by more than 200 delegates. And his hopes of catching her in the traditional delegate race are looking increasingly thin with several large states favorable to her yet to vote, including New York and Pennsylvania.
His supporters, however, say their votes are effectively being nullified by the superdelegates.
“Our presidents, our congressmen, anyone in Washington, should not be decided by anyone but the public,” said Jordan Float, 25, a nursing assistant at a Philadelphia hospital, and a volunteer with the Sanders campaign.
In reality, of course, the selection of candidates, whether its for President or any other position, has generally not been “democratic” as the general public understands it, partly for historical reasons and partly due to the very nature of the process itself. In the days before primaries and caucuses started playing a significant role at the Presidential level, for example, the selection of a Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates was left entirely in the hands of the party convention, which was largely controlled by party insiders who traded votes for political benefits or higher office on a regular basis. Quite often, the battles among party bosses would be contentious and it would take more than one ballot for a consensus candidate to emerge among the delegates, with perhaps the most extreme example of that being the Democratic National Convention of 1924 which lasted two weeks and took 103 ballots to pick John Davis as the party’s standard bearer only to see him go on to lose to Calvin Coolidge in the General Election. This method of picking Presidential candidates continued right up through the late 1960s for the most part, although it had started falling apart earlier than that as many states began holding primaries that were, for the most part, binding on the delegates sent to the respective national conventions. Today, at least on the surface, the Presidential nomination process is far more “democratic” in the sense that it at least nominally reflects the results of the primaries and caucuses held nationwide, although the reality is far more complicated than that.
In many states, the outcome of a primary or caucus is quite often only the first step in the process that ultimately leads to the selection of delegates, and in some sense it isn’t even the most important one. The “real” work of picking delegates in many states, for example, is left to local and county party conventions, and ultimately a state party convention at which the final delegate selections are made. These selections are typically tightly controlled by party leaders and often easily manipulated by well-organized campaigns even on behalf of a candidate who did not win the primary or caucus. Four years ago, for example, supporters of Ron Paul were able to use to the convention process to get many pro-Paul delegates into the convention even though they were obligated to support Romney, or whoever had won the primary or caucus, on the first ballot. This year, it appears that Ted Cruz’s campaign is doing much the same thing, something which could prove to be crucial if the Republican convention goes beyond a first ballot. More importantly, though, it appears likely that if the GOP is unable to pick a nominee on the first ballot it is likely that that ultimate nominee will be someone other than the the person who will have won the most delegates, garnered the most popular votes, and won the most states.
If that happens, it is likely to lead many supporters of the candidate who comes out on the short end feeling as if the process has not been fair, or at least that it has not been “democratic.” On some level, I suppose, the answer to this question is “no,” and the same answer applies to the question of whether the Democratic Party’s use of superdelegates is “democratic.” In the end, though, I’m not sure that this is a fair criticism of either party or its delegate allocation process. Political parties are, after all, private organizations. Because of that, they ought to be free to select delegates to their conventions and candidates for office however they see fit. If the members of the party don’t like the method being used, then they can get involved in the governance of their party and change the rules. As a general rule, though, it strikes me that complaining about the “undemocratic” nature of party rules like those governing delegate selection is really little more than a way of trying to make up for failures of a campaign itself. If the Trump campaign finds itself blindsided by the fact that it didn’t adequately prepare for the possibility that the GOP convention could go to a second or third ballot, then that’s really it’s own fault, not the fault of “undemocratic” delegate selection rules. These are the rules of the game that Trump agreed to play, it’s rather late to start complaining now.