What The Majority Of Voters Do Not Know About The Presidential Primary Election System

To some people, the presidential primaries are little more than smoke and mirrors. Despite changes made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, political power is still in the hands of the few.

Bottom Line Up Front: Voters cast their votes in a primary. A lot of American voters believe that the candidate with the highest number of votes wins the party nomination. Unfortunately, that is not how the parties set up this system. These primary votes, from the voters, determine which candidate the state’s delegates to the party convention are “pledged” to vote for at the convention. All delegates are chosen by the party leadership, not the voters. While each delegate is meant to be “pledged” to vote for a single candidate at the convention, as determined by the party rules for that state, the delegates are not bound by law to do so since political parties are private organizations. So a vote cast by a citizen may not go to the state’s chosen candidate at all, if the delegate breaks from his or her “pledge.” Each party determines the number of delegates for each state and the total number for the convention, as well as exactly how each state will award all or a portion of their delegates to one candidate, or a percentage to each candidate. Even if the voters choose one candidate, the party can void those delegates and replace them, guaranteeing the victory to their chosen candidate. These delegates cast the actual votes at the convention, not the people.

Here is how it all works:

The original intent of the primary election system was meant to transfer the right to elect a presidential candidate from an elite, entitled few into the hands of voters. Voters in each state had a choice among candidates, who now had to pay attention to the issues the public considered important. It alleviated corruption in national American politics. Both parties have similar rules for primaries, and often discuss with each other how and when they want the primaries held in a majority of states. Some states use a caucus, which will be explained towards the end.

In spirit, a presidential primary election consists of individual voters casting a vote in favor of their preferred candidate. A primary election closely resembles a general election with the voters choosing between candidates from each party for office. In a primary, however, the individual voter casts his or her vote to determine who from their party will move onto the general election. This is where the public view ends and the manipulation begins. Regardless of whether a primary or caucus is used by a state, the point is to award delegates to candidates on their way to the national convention. That’s right-delegates! The individually cast votes do not go directly to a candidate; instead they come in the form of delegates to the party’s national convention.

You may now be asking “What’s all this about delegates?” and “Who are these people?” Delegates are usually people who are involved in their state’s politics. They may be volunteers, local party chairs or other interested citizens. Each party makes their own rules for the number of, and distribution of the delegates at their respective convention. In addition, while delegates are meant to be committed to a single candidate, they are not bound by law to do so since political parties are private organizations. So a vote cast by a citizen may not go to the chosen candidate at all, if the delegate breaks from his or her obligation.

Despite pleas for party unity, three of Arizona’s 29 delegates voted for Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to be the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. During the roll call of the states, when delegations announce their votes, Gov. Jan Brewer brought a cheer from the hall when she announced that 26 Arizona votes went to Romney – then paused before adding that three delegation votes went to Paul. “Gov. Romney may not be from the West, but he’s a Westerner at heart,” Brewer said as she announced the tally. “He embodies our Western spirit and shows all that can be achieved with the American formula of hard work, faith and opportunity and freedom. and I am proud today to advance and announce that Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, casts 26 votes in … nomination of Mitt Romney … and three votes for Ron Paul,” she said. They joined 187 others who bucked the party and refused to vote for frontrunner Mitt Romney.

Here is one example of a delegate breakdown for a national convention. In 2012, the Republican Party announced the requirement to receive the GOP nomination was for a candidate to receive 1,212 delegate votes, from the total of 2,422 delegates.

The 2012 GOP delegate make up was:

  • Ten (10) “at-large” delegates (five for each senate seat)

  • Three (3) party leaders (the national party’s chairman & chairwoman for that state, plus the state Republican party’s leader)

  • Three (3) delegates per seat the state has in the House of Representatives (for example, Hawaii has two seats, so it will get six delegates from this rule)

  • If the state “went Republican” in 2008 (that is, it voted for McCain in the Electoral College), it gets a bonus of [4.5 + three-fifths of the state’s total number of electoral college votes], rounded up.

  • If any of the state’s Senate seats are held by elected (not appointed) Republicans, it gets one (1) bonus delegate per elected Republican Senator.

  • If the state’s governor is a Republican, it gets one (1) bonus delegate.

  • If the state’s members of the House of Representatives are majority-Republican, it gets one (1) bonus delegate.

  • If the state’s local legislature has one house that’s majority-Republican (like, say, the New York State Senate), it gets one (1) bonus delegate.

  • If all of the state’s local legislative houses are majority-Republican, it gets an additional one (1) bonus delegate.

Additionally, territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. along with the District of Columbia get to send at-large delegates and their three local party leaders, too. There’s even a complex rule for when DC’s electoral votes go to a Republican candidate.

Delegates may be distributed by each state party by having the primary election fashioned in aproportional system, winner-take-all system, or some entirely different system. The State Republican and Democratic party leaders determine what type of system their party will use in that particular state. Each states’ sytem even changes from one primary election year to another, as dictated by the party. After all that, the resulting delegates may not even be Binded  or “Pledged.”*

  • In a Proportional System: A state’s delegates are allocated proportionally to each candidate, though there’s often a floor of support that the candidate has to reach to even get one. For example, New Hampshire will have twenty (20) delegates up for grabs, and any candidate that gets above 10% of the vote would be entitled to a share. If a state has 100 delegates and a candidate wins 60 percent of the vote in the state’s primary, then that candidate will have 60 delegates from that state at the national convention.

  • In a Winner-Take-All System: A candidate who wins the majority of the vote in a primary wins gets all the state’s delegates.

  • Hybrid Systems: Some curious combination of proportionality and winner-take-all. For example, in California, most delegates are assigned winner-take-all… in each Congressional district (with three delegates per district), not state-wide. Then ten “at-large” delegates go to whoever got the most state-wide votes.

*Binding/”Pledged” delegates: Even after a state party selects its delegates, it could give them varying instructions on how “loyal” they have to be to their candidate. Some state parties might penalize a delegate for casting a vote against the candidate they were supposed to support at the convention if the candidate didn’t give them permission to do so, while others states might select delegates based on who they say they’re going to vote for but allow them to remain “unpledged” to any candidate.

But how do the delegates decide who to vote for? The national party determines how delegates are allocated, or even whether they get to show up to the convention at all. So any state that wants to send delegates has to abide by the national party’s rules, which are the agenda of who gets to vote and when. However, the party could vote to impose harsher restrictions, including wholly disenfranchising any state which breaks these rules. A party may penalize a state if it doesn’t follow party rules or schedules. This can result in a partial or total loss of delegates at the national convention. When the states begin to lose their delegates at the national convention, Superdelegates become especially important.

Superdelegates are usually elected officials from a state, sent by the state party to serve asuncommitted delegates. Superdelegates can pledge their votes without regard to primaries or caucuses — for example, after being courted by a candidate — or they can remain uncommitted until voting begins at the national convention. These superdelegates are not bound by the voters and are chosen by the respective party leaders of each state. While standard delegates chosen by votes from ordinary voters are important, superdelegates have a lot of influence as well. In the 2008 primaries, the Democrats had 800 superdelegates, a sizeable number considering that to win the nomination a Democratic candidate needed 2,183 delegates voting in their favor.

Each actual state ultimately decides whether it will even hold presidential primaries, and when. After all, it is generally each state’s taxpayers that pay to hold the primaries for the parties. In 2008, the state Republican parties of Michigan, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada all moved their primaries to dates before the official earliest date the Democratic Party had scheduled. In response, the Republican National Party threatened not to count the votes of some of the offending states, effectively rendering the votes cast by residents totally useless. The Secretaries of State in those states, in turn, threatened to sue the party. In the same year, the State of  Kansas came under heavy criticism in 2008 for opting out of the presidential primaries to save $2 million. In response, both the Democratic and Republican parties held caucuses in the state on their own. Again, in the 2008 election, 24 states held primaries on the earliest date — Feb. 5, referred to as Super Tuesday. To critics of the primary system, this frontloading of the schedule resulted in an unfair shift of power away from states that chose to hold their primaries later. In other words, with so many delegates up for grabs early on, states with later primary dates can lose importance.

The parties can even establish which states are their “Winner Takes All” states and then move those state primaries to early voting dates, along with setting the proportionate number of delegates to those states where the party’s chosen candidate will win most. This then clinches the win early and other states primaries have no effect on the outcome. What winds up happening is that a candidate reaches the majority of “pledged” delegates and the other candidates, seeing this, “release” their own delegates. These “released” delegates normally rally behind the winner.  The national Democratic party lets a significant number of party officials show up “unpledged” and vote their conscience at the nomination conventions (it was 856 out of 4,419 in 2008, or about 20% of the total). Republicans only let three people per state/territory do that (168 out of 2,422, or about 7%).

The caucus system dates back to 1796, when American political parties began emerging, and it hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. Most states eventually replaced this system, because as political parties became more centralized and sophisticated in the early twentieth century, party leaders or “bosses” were perceived as exerting too much control over choosing a nominee. To give individual voters more influence over the nomination process, party leaders created the presidential primary system.

In both parties, the purpose of the caucus vote is to select delegates to attend a county convention — each caucus sends a certain number of delegates, based on the population it represents. The delegates at the county convention in turn select delegates to go to the congressional district state convention, and those delegates choose the delegates that go to the national convention. In Iowa, the caucuses themselves are local party precinct meetings where registered Republicans and Democrats gather, discuss the candidates and vote for their candidate of choice for their party’s nomination.

The Republican caucus voting system in Iowa is relatively straightforward: You come in, you vote, typically through secret ballot, and the percentages of the group supporting each candidate decides what delegates will go on to the county convention.

The Democrats have a more complex system — in fact, it’s one of the most complex pieces of the entire presidential election. In a typical caucus, registered democrats gather at the precinct meeting places (there are close to 2,000 precincts statewide), supporters for each candidate have a chance to make their case, and then the participants gather into groups supporting particular candidates (undecided voters also cluster into a group). In order for a particular group to be viable, they must have a certain percentage of the all the caucus participants. If they don’t have enough people, the group disbands, and its members go to another group. The percentage cut-off is determined by the number of delegates assigned to the precinct. It breaks down like this:

If the precinct has only one delegate, the group with the most people wins the delegate vote, and that’s it.

  • If the precinct has only two delegates, each group needs 25 percent to be viable.

  • If the precinct has only three delegates, each group needs one-sixth of the caucus participants.

  • If the precinct has four or more delegates, each group needs at least 15 percent of the caucus participants.

Once the groups are settled, the next order of business is to figure out how many of that precinct’s delegates each group (and by extension, each candidate) should win. Here’s the formula:

(Number of people in the group * number of delegates)/ number of caucus participants­

For example, say a precinct has four delegates, 200 caucus participants, and 100 people support John Doe. To figure out how many delegates you assign to John Doe, you would multiply 100 by four, to get 400. You divide 400 by 200 and get 2. So John Doe gets two of the four delegates.

The media reports the “winner,” based on the percentage of delegates going to each candidate. This isn’t exactly accurate, since it’s actually the state convention that decides what delegates go to the national convention, but more often than not, there’s a clear statewide winner after the caucuses.

The political convention itself is a uniquely American tradition, one that is focused on the political parties that have defined Americans’ choices in government for nearly 175 years. Political conventions, and the party system they are an integral part of, are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the founding fathers of American government viewed political parties with distrust or outright hostility.

Originally, the main purpose of political conventions was to nominate the party’s candidate for president. In the 1800s, the movement in the United States was to place more political power directly in the hands of the citizens. Political conventions were one way of doing this: Previously, candidates were nominated in secret caucuses by members of Congress; candidates would now be chosen by delegates who were selected at the state or county level by the party members. Members are dues paying voters of a party, not every voter of the party. Members have a vested interest in the party and are allowed to partake in the internal decision making of the party. It is here that these delegates cast the true vote that will decide on which will determine the respective party’s nominee for President.

Political conventions serve other purposes beyond nominating the party candidate, which is why they’re still around. The convention offers party members a chance to gather together and discuss the party’s platform. The platform is the party’s stance on the political issues of the day. For a long time, the convention was a place for political debate, and important decisions were made there. Today, even this function of the convention has been largely stripped away. The conventions have been streamlined, with important events and speeches scheduled for prime-time television hours. The parties work to eliminate any evidence of debate or disunity within the party. The political conventions have now been reduced to the status of infomercials, marketing the ideas and personalities of the party to the public. While the conventions serve to unify the party and generate party pride, the “advertisement for the party” has become the primary function of political conventions today.

Yet today, Americans can hardly imagine a government without political parties, and the parties’ conventions.Regardless of who the voters choose, in the end, the party makes the final decision through a series of manipulations of the primary system, changing dates, setting the type of delegate selection from the primary results, and whether to even accept the delegates from certain states, or replace them with superdelegates to vote for the party, not the people.

American taxpayers help pay for the political conventions held every four years by both the Republican and Democratic national committees. The taxpayer subsidies for political conventions come through the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. The account is funded by taxpayers who choose to contribute $3 to it by checking a box on the federal income tax returns. About 33 million taxpayers contribute to the fund every year, according to the Federal Election Commission. In 2012, Taxpayers directly contributed $18,248,300 million to the Republican and Democratic national committees, or a total of $36.5 million. Congress also set aside $50 million for security at each of the party conventions.for a total of $100 million. The total cost to taxpayers of the two national party conventions in 2012 exceeded $136 million. Corporations and unions also help cover much of the cost for the conventions. The amount each party receives from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund to cover convention costs is a fixed amount index to inflation, according to the FEC. Any party which receives at least 5% of the popular presidential vote will receive an equal share of the funds during the next presidential election season. This should also be a goal of all emerging parties, as that financial loss would seriously cripple the Republican and Democrat parties. Imagine $20 million dollars split four ways, rather than between two parties.

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