Party primaries are not democracy

Will the Democratic superdelegates support the candidate who has the majority of pledged delegates or will they vote for whomever they want? This is the question that has been preoccupying many Americans’ minds since Super Tuesday. The superdelegates issue is unfortunately most often presented as a “will of the voters” question. Far from actually being so, the question itself is less one of democratic expression than a misunderstanding of the partisan electoral process the country is currently experiencing. To put it succinctly, any notion that we are witnessing “democracy in action” in the form of the presidential primary contests is fundamentally incorrect.

When we watch a primary contest in which citizens cast votes, it is easy to forget that we are not actually witnessing an “election” in which the outcome directly results in someone being elected to office. What we are actually witnessing is the process by which two of the more than 200 American political parties choose their presidential nominees. Within that, we are in actuality observing 50 different state selection processes.

Why is this? Because even though these primaries will determine which candidates will run for president under their parties’ banners, the Constitution places the authority – and expense – for administering all elections with the respective states in which those elections take place.

While the national parties can set some rules pertaining to the time frame in which a state’s nomination contests occur – and in the case of this year assess penalties for violating such rules – they do not control the administration of these contests as if they were actually one national nominating process. As such, each state political party determines its own rules for the allocation of delegates. This is why there are some states where the winner takes all the delegates, some where the delegates are determined by a party caucus, some where various proportional award systems are employed, and some where only registered members of either party can participate. In a few cases, the popular vote winner even received fewer delegates than the person who came in second.

All of these conditions are completely contrary to the characterization of a “democratic” vote in which citizens exercise their right to select their choice for leadership. The fact that in some cases like Florida you can only vote in those contests if you’re registered as a member of one or the other party completely flies in the face of the will of the “people.” Party primaries are no more about the will of the American people than is an election for Student Government. They are internal organizational processes that the vast majority of the electorate doesn’t ever take part in.

In the end, the candidates chosen will participate in an election in which all citizens can vote, but not until their organizations select them. And if those candidacies are ultimately determined by unpledged and unelected superdelegates, then it is an internal party organizational matter, not a matter of one’s constitutional rights.

Scott Wacholtz is a graduate student in the history department. He may be contacted at