High time to revamp primary election rules
Less than a week before the Feb. 5 California presidential primary (another primary for other offices and some propositions is coming up in June), Bob Mulholland, the sometimes mischievous top functionary of the California Democratic Party, saw a need to send political reporters a long message detailing the arcane rules his party would use to apportion national convention delegates after the votes were counted.
If political writers and analysts who have made their livings for decades by doping out elections didn’t understand the rules by then, no one could expect voters to know how much their ballots really counted. That’s not a healthy situation by any standard.
Even now, long after the vote, the outcome is uncertain because of those rules. For in the Democratic Party, things are not completely democratic. Nor are they in the Republican Party, but let’s deal with the Demos first.
Democrats have prided themselves since 1976 on having proportional representation (by congressional district) in presidential primaries, so you might think that since Sen. Hillary Clinton won 51 percent of the primary votes in this state, she’d get about that share of delegates.
Not so. For all congressional districts are not necessarily created equal. Among California’s 53 districts, two got three Democratic delegates each this year, 26 were awarded four, 19 have five and six districts (all but one in the San Francisco Bay area) were given six delegates each. The delegate count depends on just how Democratic a district is.
The rules become even more complicated after that. If a candidate won fewer than 15 percent of the votes in any district (and only Clinton and Barack Obama surpassed that threshold level in any district this year), his or her votes were to be discounted. To get more than two delegates in a four-delegate district, a candidate had to win more than 68 percent of the remaining votes. And so on. That’s why Clinton and Obama mostly likely will pick up nearly the same number of delegates in California, despite the lopsided vote.
The upshot is that until results are officially certified by county voting registrars and Secretary of State Debra Bowen, no one will know for sure who got how many delegates.
That’s plain ridiculous.
Equally undemocratic and silly are the Republican rules. But they are very different. That party gave three national convention delegates to every congressional district. The winner of a plurality in each district got all its votes. Since Sen. John McCain won virtually all districts, he will have almost all this state’s GOP convention delegates.
What’s wrong with that? For one thing, it makes the votes of Republicans who happen to live in strongly Democratic districts like those of Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, Henry Waxman in Los Angeles and the recently deceased Tom Lantos in San Mateo County worth much more than those of Republicans living in GOP areas like the Central Valley and Orange and San Diego counties.
Simply put, these rules defy the basic principles of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark one-person, one-vote decision.
For the vote of a San Francisco Republican had about seven or eight times the clout of a Republican vote a few hundred miles south in Newport Beach. This makes no sense.
But the Supreme Court has shown supreme indifference to these and other problems with primary election rules. It has essentially said the parties can set their own rules for intra-party competition, even if those rules directly affect general elections – where the courts have taken a strong hand.
But others show as much indifference as the high court. During a conference call the day after the primary which included several Democratic “superdelegates” – high party officials, big city mayors, members of Congress, and other major officeholders who are delegates by virtue of their offices – no one expressed the slightest interest in changing the rules.
“That might be mentioned later,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “But right now we are focusing on winning the nomination for Hillary Clinton.” Obama supporters showed no more interest.
If Villaraigosa, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and members of Congress like Maxine Waters and Lucille Roybal-Allard, all on the call, didn’t want to fix things amid the uncertain delegate counting just after this election, when will they ever?
Someone needs to light a fire under people like this in both parties, or the rules for the next presidential primary will again be set by obscure party functionaries who couldn’t care less about public understanding or empowering voters so long as their own clout is furthered.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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