Count the delegates, if you can

Originally published February 12, 2008

By Ian Sherr

SAN FRANCISCO — EDITORIAL — Just when I thought I had figured out why the Democratic Party has superdelegates, Nancy Pelosi comes along and says I have got it all backward.

“The superdelegates were established to give many more people at the grassroots level the opportunity to go to the convention and be really the overwhelming majority of who will decide this convention,” the House Speaker told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last Thursday.

With a straight face.

That was after Super Tuesday, which was supposed to decide the next Democratic nominee. Instead, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have battled themselves to a delegate draw that party elders may have to settle.

I don’t know what’s worse – Pelosi pretending that rank-and-file Democrats will get to decide anything this year, or the convoluted system created to ensure they would not. It was adopted in 1976, to reformulate the reforms of 1972, which came in response to the chaos of 1968, when the Democrats tore themselves apart in the streets of Chicago after convention delegates chose Hubert Humphrey, who had never won a primary that year.

But I get ahead of myself.

The simple way to explain it is that there are 4,049 delegates available in the national Democratic primaries and caucuses, and that a candidate needs 2,026 to get nominated. The delegates are divvied up among the 50 states and various U.S. territories by a formula based on voting trends over the past three elections.

Easy, right?

OK, now, as an example, California’s share is 370. Well, actually 441, but that depends on how you’re counting.

Each of the 53 congressional districts in California gets three delegates – except for those that get four, or five or six. The number is determined by how loyal voters in the district have been to the party. What does that mean? I’m sure someone knows.

Nevertheless, that works out to six delegates each for Pelosi’s and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee’s Bay Area districts, while Democrats from, say, U.S. Rep. Jim Costa’s district in the Central Valley only have three.

Of the 370, or 441, California delegates, 241 were awarded to the presidential contenders based on how voters within each congressional district cast their ballots on Super Tuesday.

Now, included in the 370, or 441, delegates are also Party Leaders and Elected Officials, or “PLEOs” for short. These are essentially big-city mayors, legislators and other state or local elected officials.

But not all Party Leaders and Elected Officials can be PLEOs in the California delegation to the convention. They must first fill out Form C on the California Democratic Party’s Web site, and pledge to vote for a candidate who received at least 15 percent of the statewide vote during the primary. Only 48 PLEOs get to vote at the national convention, and they must be confirmed in a vote by 241 district-level delegates. Got it? Good.

Now for the tricky part – the 71 so-called superdelegates, generally members of Congress and Democratic National Committee officials, who get to vote however they want to at the convention.

And while there are technically 71 of them, it turns out there are actually only 66, because four of the members of Congress are also members of the national committee. That leaves one poor soul who’s been lost in the arithmetic. Party leaders are hoping he or she (Democratic Party rules are very strict about gender-equalization) can be found before the convention.

So, according to the California Democratic Party, there are 71, or 66, superdelegates, 241 district delegates, 81 at-large delegates, 48 PLEOs, 5 “uncommitted” add-ons (not to be confused with the superdelegates), 22 alternates, 62 other alternates, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Does that all make sense? Yeah, me neither.

The grassroots organizers who Pelosi said have greater power in this year’s convention may soon learn exactly how much when the party leadership stands up and makes the ultimate decision to show either Barack or Hillary the door.

(By Ian Sherr. Published Feb 12, 2008, in the San Francisco Chronicle, and republished on the web, here.)