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December 20, 2007

A Primary Explanation

Chris Cavey

Next month will be the beginning, nationwide, of presidential primary voting. In my travels I have run into many people who are both surprised and confused about the advanced voting season. So here is a little primer to help you through the quandary of what and why.

Seven states will hold either primary elections or statewide caucuses to select a candidate plus delegates and alternate delegates to both the Democrat and Republican National Conventions. Actually the Democrats will hold six and Republicans seven, either way the starting line is January 3, in Iowa.

The “Tall Corn State” isn’t like Maryland in its selection process – they hold caucuses. A caucus is just a group of people who share something in common; in this case, it is political registration. These groups of either Democrat or Republicans will get together at about 60 places spread throughout the state – different places for each party are designated. Then is when the fun begins.

It’s like a PTA meeting on drugs. People are meeting in churches, schools and even living rooms to debate the merits of their favorite candidate. The discussion is often wild and always open. When it is time to start sorting out who is for whom, the participants normally form into groups within the designated meeting place, coaxing others to join them.

No candidate wins unless they have 15 percent or more of the total number of people in that designated caucus location. If no one has that amount, deals are made and alliances formed until some candidate reaches the magic mark. Under this system, the participation is active and the voting is anything but secret. Normally you are persuading your friends and neighbors.

Putting this into “Maryland’s” perspective, it is like having all the poll workers for every candidate in one spot, then letting them spend hours haggling to see which candidate will be the local caucus nominee. I’ve never witnesses this event, but a caucus has to be interesting, to say the least.

This system appears to be similar to bartering for souvenirs in a third world country, but the results are said to be accurate and there are few questions ever concerning where people stand or how they cast their vote. So, we have a weird system but no voter fraud.

The other states are “Primary Election” states, like Maryland, with voters going to the polls and marking a ballot for a favorite candidate. The winner of the presidential primary is awarded convention delegates, either on a statewide basis (winner take all) or per congressional district. Winning the popular vote within a state is important. However, by the book, it is the delegates to the national conventions that actually cast the votes and elect the party nominees. (Think: Electoral College.)

Here is where things get interesting. All the January Republican primary election states, and three of the Democrat ones, were penalized by their respective national party organizations for jumping their election date ahead of February 5. This means that some states have no convention delegates to give a candidate and some only have half of their normal delegate number.

That’s why Democrat candidates have “blown off” the voters in Florida and Michigan: there are no convention votes available. Republicans have their early states with one-half the normal voting power. Bottom line is this: in overall delegate tally all primary and caucus convention delegates awarded prior to February 5 are only about one-tenth or less of the total, which will be up for grabs on February 5.

That day is the “Jackpot Day.” The Democrats will select 2,075 convention delegates and the Republicans will select 1,113. It is likely that by the next morning we will know each party’s nominee. This means it could be all over except the paperwork seven days before Maryland trudges to the polls to cast a single vote. Could be – but hopefully not.

The fascination currently is that the favorites of each party are dropping in the polls and there is a leveling of popularity with top-tier candidates. We could find that this political horse race will continue further and here is why.

Many states, like Maryland, award the delegates elected on the ballot by congressional district. (Many are big states, too.) This means that candidates could split-up the awarded delegates so much that the field will still be level when you go to cast your ballot on February 12.

Should this spreading of the popularity continue much past Maryland’s primary, many speculate we could have a rare political event in a contested national convention, the political junkie’s dream come true.

So, get ready to cast your vote the second week of February, either way. Don’t forget to vote for your candidate and the convention delegates of your choice. You could be participating in the political event of the century – or not, because once again it will be a political feast or famine in the Great State of Maryland.

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