Monday, March 31, 2008

For Democrats, selecting delegates is a dance hard to follow

cross posted at Michigan MessengerThe protracted battle for Democratic National Convention delegates between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is confusing to average voters, looks unseemly and worries Democrats whose party conflict is set in relief by the GOP's unified support of John McCain.

But according to an expert in electoral politics, the delegate selection process varies from state to state and includes ample opportunity for twists and turns that defy common sense.

When it comes to primary elections, "What the voting public doesn't understand is that the initial voting day is only the first step in a long process," said Stewart French, political science professor at Saginaw Valley State University. "The parties control their nomination process because they are private organizations. They get to determine the rules."

Each state Democratic party determines its own rules, which can be elaborate and lead to counterintuitive results. "For example in Texas, Hillary won the popular vote but lost the delegate vote because they have something they call the Texas Three Step," French said.

In the Texas process some delegates are awarded proportionate to the primary vote, but others are selected in the Three Step consisting of precinct caucuses, county conventions and then a state convention.

Michigan's process is not as complicated as that in Texas. Michigan has a primary election and then holds congressional-district conventions at which delegates are selected. What has confounded this year's process in Michigan is the "uncommitted." In the Jan. 15 primary "uncommitted" won 40 percent of the vote and Clinton won 55 percent. Clinton favors seating delegates in proportion to the election results. Obama favors a 50-50 split.

"Without `uncommitted' there'd be no battle," French said. It would be a straightforward process with the party selecting delegates at the congressional-district level.

The Michigan Democratic Party canceled congressional-district meetings that were to occur this weekend. They have been rescheduled for April 19 in anticipation of "some sort of deal that will allow the Michigan delegates to be seated" at the national convention, French said. Such a deal will likely determine the proportions by which delegates will be awarded to Clinton's and Obama's campaigns. The state party wants to be sure of the proportions -- which they want to be agreeable to both campaigns -- before selecting delegates.

Now that Florida and Michigan have ruled out re-votes of their disputed primaries, Clinton is vowing to take the battle for seating delegates all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. "Since Florida and Michigan have decided not to have a re-vote, the only thing left to get the delegates seated is to appeal to the Credentials Committee at the convention in August."

The Credentials Committee is the final arbiter in determining who actually is permitted to serve as a delegate. The committee has the power to let delegates from Michigan and Florida be seated even though those states broke party rules when they moved their primaries up from February. The national party as punishment has barred the delegates of both states from being seated at the convention.

French says that Clinton's maneuvers to eke out more delegates and her advocacy to seat Michigan and Florida delegates are aimed at increasing her delegate total and persuading superdelegates she is more electable than Obama.

"This is the last gasp of a campaign that has no statistical chance of winning," French said.