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By Adam C. Smith, Times Political Editor
Published February 18, 2008
We residents of the Hanging Chad State learned in 2000 that election tallies have margins of error. But seven years later, it's still hard to swallow the constant reminders of how badly the world's biggest democracy handles close elections.
Last week, nine days after the polls closed, New Mexico declared Hillary Rodham Clinton the winner of the Democrats' primary there. That was a month after Clinton beat Barack Obama in the Nevada caucuses by 6 percentage points - but Obama still won more Nevada delegates toward the nomination.
Meanwhile, 1.75-million Democrats voted in Florida, but their ballots won't count in the Democratic nomination fight - unless, of course, the party changes its mind. Florida Democrats could hold a new election with only a few thousand voters participating, for instance, and the Democratic National Committee would likely recognize it as a more legitimate contest than the statewide primary.
Got all that? Well, here's where things stand in the Democratic primary contest: Obama is winning; everyone agrees on that. But figuring out the actual score is where it gets complicated. NBC News on Sunday had Obama with 1,116 delegates and Clinton with 985. The Associated Press put it at Obama 1,280, Clinton 1,218. CNN pegged it at 1,262 to 1,213.
Is this really how we should pick the leader of the free world?
"The issue here is legitimacy. Legitimacy is faith that the system is fair and it's accurate. If it's confusing, it loses legitimacy," said Donald Shea, director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. "If folks don't understand how it works, how it's calculated who the winner is, they become cynical."
Close elections are gloriously exciting and dramatic, but come on!
If you thought the Electoral College was weird, wait until you wade into the two parties' otherworldly nominating system.
Thankfully, the Republicans are working on a blowout for their nominee, so we don't have to sweat the details of that system. As for the Democrats, there is no simple answer to explain the competing delegate counts, but there are answers.
Winning the nomination requires winning enough delegates. But each state party has its own Byzantine method for divvying them up. Take, for example, the March 4 Texas contest, widely seen as a must-win for Clinton.
The fact is that winning Texas doesn't actually matter much, because no delegates are awarded to a statewide winner. Instead, most of the delegates will be divvied up by how the candidates fare in state Senate districts, with districts that voted heavily for John Kerry having more delegates than others.
That means Obama is likely to have an advantage in delegate-rich African-American districts, while Clinton's expected advantage among Latino voters may not produce as many delegates.
That's not all. Once the primary polls close, Texas Democrats can head to 1,000 precinct caucus sites to vote for delegates who weeks later will go to senatorial conventions that actually finalize the delegate totals.
Caucuses, basically community meetings that attract a small fraction of the voters at a typical primary, are a big reason no one knows for sure the delegate count so far. Iowa may have been the first contest in this epic nominating campaign, but technically it hasn't allocated any delegates.
The final Iowa delegate tally won't be decided until county conventions in March, district conventions in April, and finally the state convention in June. The actual count can and does change slightly, which is why some news organizations don't include caucus totals in their ongoing delegate counts.
Then there's the matter of superdelegates that really makes delegate counts dicey.
About 80 percent of the Democrats' delegates to the nominating convention are delegates who have pledged themselves to a candidate and are allocated based on primary and caucus results. But 796 delegates, the remaining 20 percent, are party leaders and elected officials known as superdelegates, who can back whomever they wish and change their mind as they see fit.
Democrats embraced the idea of these politician-delegates in the late 1980s as a way to ensure the party nominee would be electable in the general election. Those delegates helped Walter Mondale beat Gary Hart for the nomination in 1984, but until now few people paid much attention.
Suddenly looming, however, is the prospect that Obama could arrive at the convention in Denver having won more votes nationwide and more pledged delegates only to have the superdelegates crown Clinton the nominee.
"That's right, if superdelegates don't like who you choose to be our nominee, they can overturn your vote," warned a recent mass e-mail by the liberal Democracy for America group. "We can't let that happen. Our nominee must be chosen by Democratic voters, not by back room deals of the party elite. Sign our petition now to let the voters decide."
Mind you, this is not necessarily a likely scenario.
First of all, Clinton may wind up effectively knocked out of the race as early as March 4, if she fares poorly in Texas and Ohio.
Second, most of these superdelegates are politicians. They know chaos could ensue if they overturn the voters' will.
"Assume for the moment Obama wins the popular vote and wins the delegate count," said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, a superdelegate who has pledged to support Clinton. "I believe critical mass will come about, and Mrs. Clinton probably will free up her delegates, and vice versa."
Still to be determined is what to do about Florida and Michigan, who had all their delegates stripped away as punishment for holding primaries earlier than allowed by the national party.
Months ago, everybody assumed it wouldn't matter because a nominee would emerge early and he or she would make sure two critical general election battlegrounds were taken care of. Instead, the neck-and-neck nominating race has everyone clueless about how to handle Florida and Michigan, and most everybody worries the result could be handing those states to the GOP in November.
Democrats may dodge the perfect storm threatening to hit their convention. But sooner or later, they'd better come to grips with their convoluted system for picking nominees.
Heaven knows we love the drama, but isn't it time to restore some confidence in our electoral system?
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8241.
[Last modified February 17, 2008, 20:02:49]