Electors voting in Albany in 2016 (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
The Presidential Primary is complicated. As New York State’s failed attempt to cancel it shows, there’s more at stake than just the Democratic nominee. Instead, hundreds of delegates are running around the country in their own right to give their communities a seat at the table.
So, what do delegates do? And why, in New York, can you vote for presidential candidates and delegates separately?
Selecting the Party nominee for President
When you vote for the Democratic nominee in the Presidential Primary, you are not actually voting for a candidate. You are voting for what proportion of delegates they should get from your district.
In New York, your Delegate District is your Congressional District (CD). Every district gets a certain number of delegates based on a formula (that I won’t go into now). When you vote for a presidential candidate, you are voting for what percentage of the delegates they get. If they get 35% percent of the vote in the district, they get 35% of the delegates. Those delegates go to the national convention.
Since, in theory, a candidate could win 100% of the vote, most run more delegates -- a slate -- than will be able to attend the convention.
That’s where voting for delegates comes in...
Regardless of your presidential candidate vote, you can separately vote for any delegate you want — even if they support a different candidate. Regardless of how many votes a presidential candidate gets, the order of delegates who will get to attend the national convention with them is based on how many votes the individual delegates receive.
So, if your Congressional District gets 100 delegates to the national convention, and Candidate A gets 50% of the primary vote, that candidate gets 50 delegates from your district to the convention. But how does the candidate choose which 50 from their slate have the honor? Whichever delegates get the most votes.
As a result, if you support Joe Biden, but your friend supports Bernie Sanders and is running to be a delegate to the convention, you can vote for Biden, to give him more New York delegates, but you can also vote for your friend, to make her more likely to BE a delegate among Sanders’ number.
There is one caveat, though. The delegate rolls alternate female-male. So the delegate list is the highest vote-getters, but it flips between the highest female vote-getter and the highest male-vote getter for each slot.
Delegates do More than Select the Nominee
If all delegates did was select the presidential nominee, cancelling the primary wouldn’t matter after everyone had dropped out and conceded to Biden. But that’s not the case.
Delegates are the actual representatives of registered party members to the national organization. They are responsible for ratifying or changing the Party Rules and the Party Platform. If you want to push an issue to the Party Platform, or change the Party Rules, you need a delegate who’s on board.
I wrote more explaining just how important the delegates are to the political process here, but suffice it to say, their independent role in Democratic Party and political governance is why New York State was court-ordered to proceed with the Presidential Primary.
In the end, these delegates are not merely presidential delegates, they are Democratic National Convention delegates — one of Democratic voters’ many representatives to your political party.
Remember, only registered Democrats can vote in the various Democratic primaries this month and for Presidential Delegates. To see who is running for Presidential Delegate in your Congressional District, enter your address here and follow the steps to find your sample ballot for the presidential primary (there are two spots for sample ballots on the page, as well as poll-site info for early voting and primary day).
Ben Yee is the Democratic State Committeeman for New York's 66th Assembly District and former Secretary of the Manhattan Democratic Party. On Twitter at @yben.