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How Does This Election Business Work Again?


A first time Democratic Primary voter could afford to feel confused on Tuesday. For instance, if Dennis Kucinich, Joe Biden and John Edwards were no longer running for President, why were their names still on the ballot? Who were the ten people I’d never heard of before whose names extended, in rows of five, across the line for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – and what happened if I did or didn’t vote for them?

Welcome to American democracy, where it’s rarely so simple as trusting that the person with the most votes wins. Just as the Presidential Election is decided by the “Electoral College,” so our Primary Season – each party’s choice for its Presidential Candidate – is decided by “delegates.” The first person to get 1191 delegates wins. I think.

As far as my own vote went, as best I could understand it – and believe me, I’m trying to pay attention – I could still vote for either Kucinich, Edwards or Biden, but because they had pulled out of the race, they had no list of pledged delegates alongside their names. The temptation to vote for Kucinich regardless came into my mind, and 10,000 people across the State acted on that urge (almost half as many as did so for Edwards). But having talked myself into supporting Obama over the last couple of weeks, I felt the need to see my vote counted in the most meaningful way possible.

Clinton and Obama, being very much still in the race, each had delegates alongside their names – five apiece. By voting for the delegates as well as for the candidate, I apparently ensured that these somewhat anonymous party reps would attend the Democratic Party convention this August pledged to that particular candidate. At least that’s what I was led to believe by the election volunteer at the poll station, whose job should not be to supply such information. Quite why a simple explanation of the Delegates system can’t be printed in English at every polling station would be a mystery – if not for the fact that supplying such information would only further mystify people. I still don’t know what would have happened if I decided to vote for only four of those delegates, or three, or different ones from the two different rows. Could I have voted for Kucinich and yet for Obama’s delegates? I think I could have done. But what would it have meant if I had? Does anyone know? if you do, fill in a comment below and enlighten me. Please.

Here’s another one to which very few people seem to clearly know the answer. How are the delegates awarded? That varies State by State. (But of course!) In New York, for example, most delegates are distributed by proportional representation. So, Obama’s 40% of the vote should have got him 40% of the 232 “pledged” delegates. But the number the Times reports as having been awarded to Clinton and Obama combined adds up to only 201. Bewildered? You certainly should be.

To add to the mindnumbing chaos, every news organization is currently running different delegate counts. As of Wednesday morning, according to Slate, which has taken it upon itself to keep its own count of the discrepancies, CBS has Clinton with 1058 Delegates to Obama’s 984. NBC has Clinton with only 582 to Obama’s 485. Can anyone explain that discrepancy? And if they did, would we understand them?

In time, we trust (though whether we should be trusting is another story), the Democrat Party itself will figure out the total number of delegates pledged to both Clinton and Obama and thereby agree on who will actually run for President. To do so may require making use of the “unpledged” delegates. There are 49 “unpledged” delegates in New York, whose vote would ultimately go to Clinton for actually winning the State. But just because I’ve been told this is how it works doesn’t make it fact. And apparently, the Party itself doesn’t want a “brokered” convention in which it comes to this. They’d like the Party convention to be a Party, not a contest.

When all of this is concluded, then we have the prospect of going through it all over again in November when – as has happened in Britain before, recall – it’s perfectly possible that the candidate with less votes, Democratic or Republican, will become this country’s next “elected” President. Does anyone else have a headache or is it just me?

Given all the above, perhaps it’s not surprising that voter turnout remains so low in the Primaries. According to Time magazine, only 27% of eligible voters, Republican and Democrat, showed up on Tuesday. That means nearly three-quarters of the registered voters in twenty-two States turned down a chance to choose their Party’s leader, and possibly the next President. Given that most citizens in most countries don’t get such an opportunity to begin with (when did our British readers last go to the voting booth to choose the leader of the Labour, Lib-Dems or Conservative parties), then such low turn-out seems disappointing.

As we all know, there are lies, damn lies and statistics, and Clinton and Obama are naturally throwing Tuesday’s numbers around as best suits them. Clinton made a big deal that she carried her home State (and mine), New York. Indeed, an interactive map at the NYTimes site shows that she won every single county but one – Tompkins County at the foot of the Finger Lakes, wherein lies the City of Ithaca, and the liberal (but Ivy League) university of Cornell. That makes it look like a rout. But remember, most delegates are awarded by proportional representation: Obama still came away with his fair share of delegates.

As a side note, I found it fascinating that the closest Obama came to winning any other counties in New York was in our old home of Brooklyn, where he polled 48%, and our new home in Ulster County, where he pulled 47%. I guess that says much about where we choose to live! Statewide, using figures supplied by the NY Board of Elections, about one-third of registered Democratic voters actually showed up – a record number, apparently, but considering that the race between Clinton and Obama has been so tight, allowing that delegates were awarded by proportional representation, and thereby concluding that one’s vote actually counted for once, then that turn-out still seems disappointingly low.

Amidst the argument about who won more States on Tuesday (Obama) versus who actually won more delegates (apparently, Clinton), little has been made of the most basic tally: the so-called “popular vote.” According to NBC, 6,967,302 across the country voted for Clinton, versus 6,835,447 for Obama. That’s a miniscule difference of less than a single percentage point. In other words, Democratic voters on Tuesday were as evenly split as national voters have been in the last two Presidential elections.

Keep an eye on those numbers as get closer to the Convention. While the American electoral system has always been based on States rights rather than a simple plurality, it will be interesting to see if the eventual Democratic leader is the one who gets the most votes.

Depending, of course, on how you define a “vote.”

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1 Comment(s)

  1. 9 February, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    Rock on, dudes. Clinton and Obama have the same platform. Both will bleed Fed coffers by keeping troops in Iraq to guard the five permanent bases for the Hunt Oil Company, who I’m sure donate generously to both campaigns. If, however, you happen to be indigent in America, then the Democratic ticket is a far better choice. But beware…more funny money and more rate cuts and deployments to Pakistan (which both support) will soon dry up the limited social and health services infrastructure we’re clinging to in this country.

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