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Ray’s Round Up: Primary Elections 101 – Process and Purpose


Over the last few weeks, the presidential candidates made frequent appearances across the Commonwealth, hosting town halls, rallies, and private appearances leading up to the April 26 th PA primary. While I’d like to think it was to enjoy a taste of the good life in the Keystone State, it had more to do with the influence primaries have on the presidential election later this fall.


In November, when voters hit the polls and select our next President of the United States of America, there can only be one candidate for each political party (Democrat and Republican). Yet all you have to do is turn on the TV, tune into the radio, or log on to your social media accounts and it's clear that there are several individuals vying to be that one candidate for their political party.


How is the decision made about who’s name is on the ballot come November? What are primaries, delegates, super delegates, and what does it all mean ? How did my vote in the PA primary on April 26th impact the presidential race? Let’s take a moment to review…


The PA primary election was a political party primary, which means that only registered democrats or republicans could vote to select the candidates who will appear on the fall election ballot of either political party. Each political party has its own way of choosing the candidate who will represent the party on the November general election ballot.  Here’s a brief summary of what is a detailed and confusing process.


Both political parties choose their presidential nominee at their national conventions by a vote of the delegates representing each state.  These conventions will be held in July - the Democrats in Philadelphia, PA and the Republicans in Cleveland, OH.  Each state chooses their delegates to the conventions in different ways – in Pennsylvania, one of the ways is for individuals to be elected by primary voters to serve as delegates. Any member of the political party may run to be elected as a delegate to that party’s national convention.  The primary election also helps to determine who these elected Pennsylvania delegates will support at the convention – to a point.


Here’s how it works on the Republican side.  Pennsylvania will have 71 delegates at the Republican convention.  Seventeen of those delegates are chosen by the leaders of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and are committed to vote for the candidate who wins the statewide primary election (for this presidential election, it would be Donald Trump).    Each of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts also elects three delegates.  Based on the rules of the Republican Party, none of those delegates are committed to voting for a specific presidential candidate at the convention, although many of them publicly announced their intentions before the primary election.


On the Republican side, your vote during the PA primary on April 26th will influence 17 of the 71 delegates at the Republican convention; those 17 must vote for the candidate who won the PA primary.


The Democratic Party chooses their delegates differently.  They also have many more delegates – Pennsylvania will send a total of 234 to the Democratic National Convention.  Of the 234 delegates, 127 are elected from the 18 congressional districts.  The individuals who choose to run to be elected as a delegate must declare which presidential candidate they support.  The presidential candidates are then awarded delegates from each congressional district based on the percentage of the vote they get in that district.


(If you’d like a math example, read the next few lines. Otherwise, skip ahead.) For instance, if there were 5 delegates available from Congressional District 1 and Hillary Clinton received 60% of the vote in that district while Bernie Sanders got 40%, Clinton would get 3 of that district’s delegates while Sanders would get 2.  If four individuals in District 1 were on the ballot to be elected as delegates for Clinton, the three who received the most votes would go to the convention.


But wait, there’s more.  An additional 62 delegates will be chosen at the Pennsylvania Democratic Party state convention by party leaders, and their votes at the national convention will be split proportionally between the presidential candidates based on the statewide vote in the primary.


(More math ahead!) About 55% of those 62 delegates will vote for Clinton, while the other 45% will vote for Sanders.


Finally, the remaining 21 delegates are known as “super-delegates” – they are democratic elected officials like Governor Wolf and Senator Casey who may vote for any candidate they choose at the convention. The super-delegates make up a small percentage of the total delegates at the convention, but because super-delegates are not committed to a particular candidate based on the results of the primary election, they could play a large role in determining the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee if no candidate had enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination before the convention begins.


It is a complicated process, and it’s different in each state.  These rules are determined by the political parties and it is important to remember they control this process, because what Pennsylvanians who vote in the primary election are actually voting for is who will appear on the November general election ballot to represent that political party.  In November we all get to vote for the candidates to fill the office (well, except for the fact we don’t actually choose a President – we choose electors to the Electoral College who are pledged to support a certain candidate for President.  But let’s not get into that right now).


Is all this to say if you voted on Tuesday your vote wasn’t really meaningful?  Not at all!  But the way we determine our political candidates, like our democracy as a whole, is a bit messy.  Hopefully, if you have a better understanding of the electoral process it will enable you to make the best decision when you cast your vote.  Because in the end it remains truly remarkable that we have a system where each individual has a say in determining our political leaders.


“Ray’s Round Up” features updates on current state and federal issues by Ray Landis, AARP PA’s Advocacy Manager. 

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