The Sporadic US Nominee System: Part 1, Who Can Vote? By John Atherton


Prior to the US presidential election are each party’s primaries, where candidates seek to become the Democratic or Republican nominee. These parties are able to choose their voting method within a broad legal framework varying it on a state by state basis. As a result the terminology surrounding elections and the variety of what that terminology means can become quickly confusing.

This article serves as a brief guide to the variety of these voting methods and their consequences, and their impact on a system seeking democratic representation. In brief there are four main considerations; delegates, the voting method, who can vote and how that vote is allocated.


Delegate Allocation

States have a varying number of delegates, larger states generally receiving more.  In total the Democrats have 4765 delegates while the Republicans have 2472. The first candidate to receive half the delegates before the convention at the end of the race becomes the party nominee. Though the convention is usually ceremonial, if no candidate receives enough votes before the convention then a nominee will be selected at the now contested convention. In a contested convention delegates vote repeatedly until a nominee receives a majority vote, a notable consequence of a brokered convention is that they allow delegates of previously dropped out candidates to pledge their votes to a different candidate. Before we move onto the voting method we find the first of the contentious components of this race, superdelegates. Although there are 4765 Democratic delegates, only 4051 are determined by vote, the 714 remaining delegates all being superdelegates.


These delegates mainly consist of party officials, endorsing candidates at their whim throughout an election before casting their votes as primaries draw to a close. This is the first major source of confusion: although no superdelegate has currently voted, their non-binding endorsements are sometimes counted as a guaranteed vote. Furthermore without considering superdelegates, an incorrect perception of the popular candidate in the eyes of the people could be misconstrued. Discussion of superdelegates is mainly in reference to the thereby somewhat ironically named Democratic Party, though the Republicans also have delegates who fulfil the role of effective superdelegates.

These Republican superdelegates are automatically seated, though they are far fewer in number. Limited to three per state these delegates typically find themselves obliged to vote for their state’s popular winner, skewing results in favour of the most popular candidate though without as great a potential for misrepresentation as exists in the Democratic primary. To determine each state’s winner different voting methods are used.


Primaries and Caucuses

There are two main election types, caucuses and primaries. Primaries most closely resemble a normal election ballot, while people caucusing gather in an area such as a town building to stand in a respective area for their candidate before a headcount is carried out. The method of caucusing is considered outdated in many respects, having a more feasible historical origin in the lower populated past of the United States. That’s two methods so far, but once you factor in who can vote there are effectively six.

Open Primaries and Caucuses

Open caucus, semi-closed caucus, closed caucus, open primary, semi-closed primary and closed primary consist this list. The differences in these names refer to who can vote. In an open caucus everyone can participate in either party’s primary or caucus, registered members, independents and technically even someone who might prefer the opposing party. Disagreements with open caucuses refer mainly to someone’s ability to vote for an opposing party’s candidate.

Semi-Closed Primaries and Caucuses

Semi-closed and closed primaries and caucuses only allow registered members to vote, thereby requiring them to become affiliated with a major party, though the semi-closed variant allows people to affiliate with a party at the last minute. That said, semi-closed voting still requires party affiliation, potentially undermining independents.

Closed Primaries and Caucuses

Closed voting, finally, takes this further, not just undermining independent party prospects by growing their membership but also excluding independent voters entirely, even if they preferred a specific candidate and would have voted for them. All these voting methods are assisted by public funding, including taxpayer money from excluded voters. Finally, the obvious implication of optional voting should also be remembered, making enthusiasm an important factor and often favouring hardline candidates that appeal to their party’s bases.

Overall most of the criticism stems from differences between what candidate best represents a party, what candidate best represents the people whose vote he or she would receive, and the candidate with the best chance of winning the presidential election (and thereby potentially best serve the party or voters in the long run). For parties seeking to exert control over their elections, a free society should certainly place the burden of proof on them to justify themselves, so weigh the arguments up for yourself to see which of these structures you think are valid.