This year's presidential nomination contest has Democrats excited, engaged, and turning out in record numbers. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that almost no voters actually understand the process by which their party will select a nominee. We barely understand it, and it's our job.
It's becoming clear that, barring an unlikely collapse by either Clinton or Obama, neither candidate will secure enough delegates at the ballot box to lock up the nomination. This is thanks to the superdelegates--elected officials and DNC members whose votes at the convention are not bound by their state's primary or caucus results. They account for one-fifth of all delegates, meaning that a candidate must win more than 62 percent of all normal (or "pledged") delegates in order to secure the nomination outright. In a contest as close as this year's, that's a high bar to meet.
Superdelegates have been around since the early 1980s, when Democrats decided that their previous tweaks to the nominating process, twelve years earlier, had put too much power in the hands of ordinary voters, whose recent choices (George McGovern and Jimmy Carter) were less than stellar. This undemocratic twist to the process always had the potential to be a cure worse than the disease, but it's never made a difference until now.
A second problem with the process is that it's needlessly complicated. Democrats award most of their pledged delegates based on the results in each congressional district, with each district assigned between three and seven delegates through a convoluted formula based on past Democratic voting patterns. On Super Tuesday, Clinton and Obama paid special attention to districts with an odd number of delegates, where a strong performance could more easily translate into a delegate victory, instead of a dreaded delegate split. Rube Goldberg would be proud.
Awarding delegates at the district level serves no evident purpose, besides helping sever the link between the popular vote and the delegate count. In Alabama, Obama beat Clinton 56 to 42 percent but apparently won one fewer delegate because his vote was concentrated in African American areas, many of which are packed into one gerrymandered congressional district. Democrats can at least console themselves with the knowledge that the GOP's system is even worse: Some states award all their delegates to the winner while others do so proportionally, so an enormous and arbitrary advantage goes to the candidate (in this case, John McCain) who happens to be disproportionately strong in the winner-take-all states.
The Republicans can do whatever they like, but Democrats should adopt a simple, fair system for the next election cycle. Superdelegates ought to be eliminated, and each state's delegates awarded to candidates in proportion to their share of the statewide vote. As we have previously recommended, the states should be organized into a system of rotating regional primaries to end their self-defeating contest to leapfrog each other on the calendar.
Democrats have long crusaded against Republican efforts to constrict democracy by limiting participation in elections. It would be nice if the party lodging these complaints did a better job of living up to its own principles.
By The Editors