The Democrats’ democratic presidential nomination process

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Defending the Electoral College since 2009

The Democrats’ democratic presidential nomination process
Sean Parnell • Apr 12, 2022

I recently wrote about how the Democratic Party selects its national leadership and how it recognizes that while “one person, one vote” is a “sacred principle” of democracy (as stated in the party platform), it is not the only principle. Using a multi-step and mostly state-based system, the Democratic Party brings a wide range of constituencies to the table. It provides representation to communities that would likely get overlooked in a strict “one person, one vote” direct election along the lines of what the British Labor Party adopted in 2015.

Perhaps even more important: How is the Party’s presidential nominee chosen? Is the process leading up to the nomination democratic? Just as is the case with the selection of the party chair, the answer is yes, so long as it’s understood that “one person, one vote” is just one democratic value alongside others.

So how does the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination process work? Just like the Electoral College, it uses state-by-state elections in which the party prioritizes participation by a broad national cross-section of party supporters while rejecting direct voting for the nominee or a rigid adherence to “one person, one vote” (it incorporates that principle at the state level, similar to the Electoral College).

To win the nomination, a candidate must receive a majority of pledged delegate votes at the national convention on the first round of voting (below I explain what happens if nobody gets a majority in the first round). Every state (plus the District of Columbia and U.S. territories) is allocated delegates based on a few factors. There’s a very long explanation of the process available at TheGreenPapers.com but a simplified explanation follows.

  1. Each state’s “base delegate” allocation is determined by a formula incorporating how many electoral votes the state has and how many votes were cast in the state for the Democratic presidential candidate in the 3 most recent elections (territories like Guam and Puerto Rico get base delegates using a different formula). Most of these delegates represent specific congressional districts, while the rest are elected on a statewide basis.
  2. Every state also gets additional delegate slots, equal to fifteen percent of the base delegate total, to be filled by state party leaders or other prominent elected officials.
  3. There are also “bonus delegates” awarded to states that hold their caucuses or primaries later in the process, either ten percent or twenty percent of the base delegate allocation (the later in the process, the bigger the bonus).
  4. A state can also receive bonus delegates equal to fifteen percent of their base delegate allocation when neighboring states hold their caucuses or primaries on the same day (“Super Tuesday” and similar regional events).

So the party starts with a base allocation tied to a rough proxy for the state’s population (electoral votes) and the number of Democratic voters in the state (how many voted Democratic in recent years). It then modifies this population-centric allocation by taking into consideration political factors (the desire to avoid “frontloading” the nomination process and encourage regional cooperation). All these factors must matter to the Democratic Party, and so while they violate a rigid application of “one person, one vote,” they are incorporated into its nominating process.

But how are each state’s delegates chosen? Does that at least conform to “one person, one vote”? Not really. For starters, candidates that receive less than fifteen percent of a state’s primary vote receive zero delegates. And I’m not even going to try to describe how the Iowa Democratic Caucuses award delegates, just suffice it to say it’s not going to please those who insist “one person, one vote” is the only democratic principle. But in most states Democrats at the start of the process aren’t voting for specific delegates – those are chosen at district or state party conventions and divided up between candidates who received more than fifteen percent of the vote and in rough proportion to the primary or caucus day results. These delegates are typically activist Democrats who represent a wide variety of interests, causes, and backgrounds.

And because the number of delegates each state receives isn’t tied to the number of people who actually show up to vote for their favored candidate, there is often only a modest link between the number of people who turn out and vote for a candidate and how many delegates they receive. For example, in February 2020, Senator Bernie Sanders received about 41,000 votes out of 101,000 total cast in the Nevada caucuses, winning the state and picking up 24 delegates. A week later he won Colorado, this time getting more than 355,000 votes, but his total delegate haul there was 29. Thus a delegate in Nevada represented fewer than 2,000 Bernie voters while a delegate in Colorado represented more than 12,000 Bernie voters.

While Senator Sanders was winning Colorado, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg picked up 4 delegates from American Samoa after 175 of the territory’s residents voted for him. Then-Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard picked up the two remaining delegates after receiving 103 votes, while the remaining voters were split between the other candidates, none of whom topped fifteen percent. That same day former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the choice of just under a quarter-million Californians, for which he got zero delegates because it was only 4.3 percent of the total votes cast. So much for one person, one vote.

Previous Democratic Party presidential nomination contests show similar outcomes. In March of 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picked up 46 delegates after winning Massachusetts with just over 600,000 votes. She also won Tennessee that day, receiving about 246,000 votes and gaining 44 delegates. In 2008, then-Senator Clinton actually received more popular votes than then-Senator Barack Obama, if the votes of Michigan are included (the state held its primary outside of the time frame permitted under the rules and lost its delegates to the convention).

And all this is before “super delegates” get involved. These are party officials – every member of the Democratic National Committee, all Democratic members of Congress and Governors, and a handful of other luminaries like former presidents and vice presidents. These delegates no longer have the ability to vote in the first round of voting at the convention, but if it goes to a second round, they are able to vote.

A form of “one person, one vote” is certainly present within almost every state’s nomination contest (like Bruno, it’s best not to talk about the Iowa Democratic Caucuses). Every voter in the Arizona Democratic Primary, to pick one state, is equal to every other Arizona voter – their votes will be cast under the same voting process, aggregated with their fellow Democratic voters across the state, and count in determining who won the state and what share of delegates (if any) each candidate receives. So that “sacred principle” is present.

The Democratic Party’s system for nominating presidential candidates shares some of the Electoral College’s key characteristics – it rejects the idea of a direct national vote (despite proposals to establish a national primary), it rejects calls to erase state (or district) lines, and it avoids a rigid application of “one person, one vote.” Instead, it acknowledges the need to balance competing democratic principles, including the federalist nature of our nation. It attempts to balance representation and influence between the public at large, Democratic voters and activists, and Democratic elected officials who, by the very fact of their being elected officials, have demonstrated some political savvy and insight into the voting public.

Democratic? Certainly, at least by any healthy definition of democracy. And just another example of how the “one person, one vote” principle, while an important democratic value, is only one democratic value among many others.

Photo by Kelly DeLay

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