So the rules of the primaries are:
- Some (25%) of delegates are awarded at the state level (“at large delegates”). Some are awarded at the Congressional district level (75%). There is also a second category of elected delegates awarded based on the statewide vote called “Pledged Party Leaders and Elected Officials”, awarded in parallel to the first category. The number of Pledged PLEOs a state gets is 15% of the combined number of district level and at-large elected delegates.
- States are required to distribute delegates among the Congressional districts based on a mix of population and votes for Democrats in Presidential and/or Gubernatorial elections.
- In addition, there is an unelected category of delegates, known as “Automatic Party Leaders and Elected Officials”. (This is what the party calls superdelegates.) It includes DNC members, Democratic holders of the following offices: President, VP, members of Congress, Governors (and mayor of DC), as well as past holders of the following offices: President, VP, Senate Leader (i.e. Majority or Minority), Speaker of the House, Minority Leader, DNC Chair. They don’t get to vote on the first ballot.
- The presidential campaigns submit lists of people they approve of as district level delegates from a list of those who have filed to the state party an application to become a district level convention delegate. The rules for how the delegates are chosen from those who were approved varies by state. In some cases, they may be elected by voters in the primary, in which case this step will need to occur before ballots are printed.
- After the primary, and after the district level delegates have been selected, the campaigns approve people who apply to be delegates in one of the two statewide categories (at large and pledged PLEO). They must approve at least one candidate per seat won in that category. In some states they must approve at least two candidates per seat won in that category. The delegates are chosen from this list by either the district-level delegates, or a committee of party officials elected not before 2016.
- In the primaries themselves, voters pick one candidate.
- For each level at which delegates are selected, candidates are awarded delegates using the largest remainders rule of proportional representation with Hare Quotas, however, candidates with less than 15% of the vote do not receive seats, and their votes calculating quota are ignored. In addition, for at-large and PLEO delegates, if a candidate otherwise entitled to delegates drops out, then they will also be ignored.
- For the first ballot of the convention, pledged delegates must vote for the candidate that they pledged to. However, if a candidate with pledged delegates drops out and releases their delegates, they do not have to. At the convention, the winner must get a majority, or there is another ballot.
- Caucuses still exist, unfortunately.
I think this is close to being a good system (i.e. a few changes away; without them, it’s still pretty bad), despite only allowing voters to choose one candidate, because delegates are assigned by a proportional rule, nomination requires a majority vote at the convention, and delegates are not bound to candidates who drop out. This allows later preferences to be expressed to a certain extent via delegation, since ideally the later preferences of a candidate’s delegates should reflect those of their voters. However, in practice, this may not be the case, since the rules for selecting delegates from those approved by the campaign allow nonsupporters of a campaign to have influence over the delegation of that campaign. State level delegates are chosen by the state party committees or the state’s district level elected delegates. They may choose delegates whose later preferences reflect their interests rather than that of the voters for that candidate.
This is even true when district level delegates are selected by voters. My state allows voters to directly select district-level delegates. It uses a modified version of PAL, in which the delegate candidates are separated by gender, but not candidate preference (which is listed on the ballot). Delegates are elected in a manner that preserves a preset gender composition, reflects the composition of pledged first preferences implied by the primary vote, while prioritizing those delegates with the most votes. This has all sorts of weird strategic implications that most voters are probably unaware of. (Just selecting the delegates that your first presidential choice’s campaign approves deprives you of any say as to who they will be, since it is standard practice for a campaign to approve only as many candidates are there are seats to win.)
Campaign approval of candidates should act as a bulwark against “Let’s choose the only Sanders>Biden>others voter in the country for the Sanders delegate”, planning for defeat is probably not a campaign’s greatest priority, so they may give enough attention to later preferences.
In general, the DNC should embrace the principle of “delegation as a way of expressing later preferences”, rather than “assume voters have no opinions on what should happen if their favorite doesn’t win.” Embracing the former principle would involve making it easier to find out what the later preferences of a candidate’s approved delegates are, so that voters may take it into account. A blatant case of the latter principle can be shown in the rules for excluding candidates from receiving delegates in certain cases. Voters who select candidates with less than 15% of the vote don’t have any influence on the delegates. Also, when a candidate drops out, they are excluded from receiving statewide elected delegates in those states which haven’t selected their specific statewide delegates. The DNC likely knows the latter principle is false. The real motivation for these rules is likely to generate an illusion of consensus, so the party appears united at the convention. However, allowing supporters of minor candidates to have their voices heard would mean a nominee supported by a greater actual consensus. The 15% threshold should be scrapped. As long as there is a threshold, especially one that high, claiming that candidates are awarded delegates “proportionally” is misleading. It can only be said that delegates are awarded to candidates above the threshold proportionally.
There are too many (3) completely separate categories of elected delegates. The consequences of having this many categories is that the ruleset for awarding delegates is overly byzantine, and fineness of proportionality is sacrificed. Two of the categories are redundant: both “at-large” and pledged PLEO delegates are awarded based on the statewide vote, however, separate applications of the largest remainder rule are applied. For the purposes of determining the number of state level delegates that each candidate is entitled to, these categories should be merged. At first, I was also opposed to the existence of district level delegates. In terms of providing local representation at the convention, dividing them among congressional districts is silly, since due to gerrymandering, they often don’t correspond to actual communities with common interests. They sacrifice fineness of proportionality, since a state’s total number of delegates will likely be two or three digits, but a single district’s delegate share will probably only be one digit. They also harm candidates slightly over 15%, as they will lose delegates in their weaker districts. On the other hand, they help candidates slightly under 15%. Another purpose they seem to serve is to make some voters more equal than others. Since apportionment among Congressional districts is determined in advance, if a lot more voters show up in single Congressional district than expected, their influence will be diluted. This is not necessarily bad, since it helps for things like the weather depressing turnout in a region. So my opinion about this is mixed. I will note that adding the fractional remainders for each category would allow for fineness of proportionality to be maintained while still having separate categories of delegates. It’s not like the average voter knows how the delegate math works anyway.
Potentially worthwhile actions:
If we can find the later preferences of the delegates approved by campaigns and likely to be selected, then make them publicly available, it could help voters cast a more
tactical informed vote in the primary. If we can do it with perfect success, we could find the pairwise delegate counts.
Sources for rules: