The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Democratic primaries:
Not so democratic

Feb 18, 2008

The primary selection process has been used to generate excitement and interest for the elections, and for the eventual Democratic and Republican party nominees. But that doesn’t mean it allows the population to really express itself. No, far from it: whether Democratic or Republican, the primaries are anything but democratic.

This may be more obvious in the Republican nominating process. In the vast majority of state contests, whoever wins a state’s caucus or primary wins all the delegates in that state. That means that a candidate might have barely more popular votes than his competition, yet run away with the nomination – like this year, with McCain vs. Romney. Or, it might even mean that someone gets the nomination with fewer popular votes than someone else. The Republican nominating process works a lot like the Electoral College in the general election. And we saw how undemocratic that was, in the 2000 general election: Bush, with a minority of the popular vote, still won the election and the presidency.

The Democratic Party process allots its delegates somewhat proportionally, according to the popular vote in each state’s nominating vote. But that still doesn’t mean that it reflects the will of the people – for a number of reasons.

For starters, only five states were allowed into the first “round” of elections: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Wyoming. All of these states are overwhelmingly rural or small town, or Southern, where mostly conservative politics hold sway. That helped to make sure that, from the beginning, the campaign was not framed by the concerns of industrial workers, living and working in large cities; instead, the campaigns were shaped by the more conservative concerns of small state constituencies.

Two more heavily populated states, Michigan and Florida, pushed their primaries closer to the beginning of January, to give themselves more weight in the nominating process. Both were punished by the Democratic Party by having their delegates not count in the nominating process.

Second, each state decides just how it is going to allocate its delegates – and it’s almost never exactly proportional to the vote. In Nevada, Barack Obama lost the popular vote but gained more delegates; in Missouri, a similar thing happened to Hillary Clinton.

Caucuses, both Democratic and Republican, are particularly undemocratic. First, these are special meetings held at specific times – not many workers are able to make it to those meetings. That way, they are slanted so that only active party members, as well as students and other privileged layers, dominate the caucus meeting.

Second, the votes taken at these meetings are to elect representatives to a later county-wide caucus – which then elects delegates to a still later, state-wide caucus. It’s at this state-wide meeting that delegates to the conventions are actually chosen. The representatives chosen to go to this meeting are charged with voting for a specific candidate or another – but they don’t have to. They can vote any way they choose; and the final delegate count coming out of a caucus might have nothing to do with the original popular vote, as has often been the case.

For example, in the Iowa caucus four years ago, if the popular vote had translated directly into delegates, John Kerry would have gotten 21 delegates, John Edwards 17, and Howard Dean 7. But instead, after the statewide meeting decided the delegates, Kerry received 39 delegates. Edwards received four, and Dean got two.

Finally, almost 20% of the delegates to the nominating convention are never voted on by the public. These are the so-called “superdelegates,” party officials given a special status to cast their votes however they please. And many times, like this year, the superdelegates will decide the nominee.

All of these procedures have been put in place precisely to make sure that no insurgent, or “dark horse” candidate, speaking to the true concerns of working people and therefore very popular, would be able to “hijack” the Democratic nomination from the party machine. Even apart from the massive amounts of money spent by the wealthy to control these parties, the primary process itself makes sure that the eventual nominee will reflect the interests of the true party bosses – the wealthy ruling class.

It’s just the same as if the candidate were decided in a “smoke-filled back room” – but hidden by the mirage of “democratic” elections.