Party Conventions and Delegates
And Why We Should Care
May 6, 2016


Democracy is cumbersome, inefficient, time-consuming, difficult, and frustrating.  It is one of humans’ greatest inventions.  If only works if we really want it.  By now, numbers and types of delegates are probably swirling your head.   This should help.

First, there are no laws regarding political parties and their processes. State laws control only voter registration, polling places, and election rules.  Each party – Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, and even Communist – sets its own rules for how it will nominate candidates for public office. Generally, the parties operate through committees.

The Democrats and Republicans each have local, county, state, and national committees. The Democratic and Republican party structures are very similar.  State laws allow only parties with significant public support to appear on ballots.  The smaller parties have their own private processes.  Federal law is primarily concerned with prohibiting discrimination.

The argument that closed primaries disenfranchise independent voters is bunk. 
The public selects the delegates, not the actual candidates, during the spring primaries and caucuses. 
When you choose to register as a Democrat, you get to choose the Democratic delegates.
When you choose to register as a Republican, you get to choose the Republican delegates.
When you choose to register as an independent, you don't get to choose delegates.
If you're not a Green, Libertarian, or Communist, you don’t have a right to choose their candidates. 
You live with the consequences of your choices.

The delegates adopt the platforms and select the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates at the conventions.

During the primary season, several candidates compete for each party’s nomination.  Gradually, the weaker candidates drop out, and the stronger advance.  Democratic and Republican voters express preferences for candidates, but actually choose convention delegates.  The two parties’ processes are similar.

The parties’ national and state committees use a complex mathematical formula to decide how many delegates each state gets.  There are 3,200 total Democratic and 2,510 Republican delegates.
Each state committee decides the specific rules for choosing delegates in its respective state.  The process includes votes by local and county committees.

There are two types of delegates – pledged and unpledged.  Pledged delegates are elected at the party primaries in the spring.  They are required to vote for their candidates on the convention’s first ballot.  They may vote for their choice on subsequent ballots.  Unpledged (“super”) delegates include party leaders and elected officials.  Democrats are beginning to consider eliminating superdelegates, but that won’t happen this year.  Unpledged delegates can vote for any candidate on any ballot.
You can see updated counts of each candidate’s delegates at

As much as some people like to gripe, these rules are not secret at all. 
You just have to put a little bit of effort into finding and reading them.

It doesn’t matter if there is no acclaimed nominee before the convention.  When there is more than one viable candidate, or a single candidate with significant disapproval, the parties resolve it on the convention floor, through their rules. 

That’s what they mean by a contested convention.

Right now, both parties are operating on temporary rules adopted in August 2015.  The week before the convention begins, the party leaders and Rules Committee adopt final convention rules.  Since there are no rules for the 2016 conventions yet, all predictions of candidates or contested conventions are just speculation.  Considering current events, I bet we’ll see some interesting changes.  Anyone can still win either nomination.

The conventions’ primary purpose is to nominate the parties’ presidential and vice presidential candidates for the November election. However, there are other goals too.

At the convention, the parties will adopt their platforms for the next four years. The platform is the statement of the party’s official positions on public policy issues such as the economy, foreign policy, taxes, the environment, education, and social issues. Each position is a plank in the platform. Platform committees have drafted the statements and convention delegates will vote on each plank.  Once adopted, the platforms will appear on the parties’ websites.

The convention is also a pep rally to inspire party officials, campaign workers, and voters.  To that end, each party invites some of its prominent leaders to speak to the delegates and the public.

The Republican convention will be in Cleveland on July 18 through 21.
The Democrats will convene in Philadelphia on July 25 through 28.

So, these are my predictions for the conventions: The parties will provide us with a lot of drama but in the end, they’ll get their acts together and choose candidates. They always do.  Don’t be surprised if it happens late at night.

So, now that we’ve whittled down nearly two dozen original candidates to just two, we have a general election campaign.  Traditionally, the formal campaigns begin after Labor Day.  But don’t expect tradition this year.  We’ll be lucky if they wait until the end of July.

At the general election in November, the voters express their presidential preferences, but they actually choose electors.  The Electoral College meets on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. The Constitution's 12th amendment specifies the voting process. 

Each state uses its own method to choose its electors.  In most states, the parties choose their electors long before Election Day. They're usually party officials, state or local government officials, or influential party members. The party whose candidate wins the popular vote participates in the Electoral College. The other parties do not participate.

Some states require specific votes from electors, others don't.  Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia require their Electoral College members to vote for the candidate who won the state's popular vote. That's the "winner takes all" system.  Maine and Nebraska have a "district system" in which two votes are given to the candidate who won the state's total vote, and the remaining votes are distributed to the candidate who won each Congressional district.  In the remaining 24 states, electors are expected, but not required, to vote for the candidate to whom they have pledged.  Sometimes, despite the law, electors vote for a different candidate.  They are called "faithless electors" and can face a fine and lose their electoral positions.  It rarely happens and has never affected an election.

You should care about this because you are an American.  It is your responsibility to know how your own government works.  And if you’ve read this far, you obviously do care.  So take that caring a step further.  Educate yourself.  Read a newspaper.  Learn about the issues.  Lobby your public officials about issues that concern you.

So that’s it.  There’s still a long road ahead of us.

For more information:
Democratic National Committee
DNC Delegate Selection and Convention Rules
Republican National Committee
RNC Delegate Selection and Convention Rules
Why We Need More Lobbyists

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