THE BLOG
04/02/2008 02:26 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Are There Delegates?

Bill Clinton's big speech at Sunday's California Democratic Party (CDP) convention in San Jose carried one message: "chill out." Let the ten remaining states cast their votes before deciding who the nominee is. Although the message seemed to be directed at the three thousand or so in the hall and the media beyond, it was, in fact, narrowcast. The former president had delayed his speech by an hour in order to meet individually with every super delegate the CDP hierarchy could wrangle for him where he delivered a different message: now is the time to support Hillary so that she can win the nomination regardless of the popular vote.

During his speech, again the real show was off-stage as the delegates to the State Central committee amped up for yet another insider battle: would State Senator Carole Migden -- the subject of $350,000 in fines and a $9 million law suit by the state's Fair Political Practices Committee -- receive the CDP's endorsement before the June 3 primary? Or, perish the thought, would she have to face the voters to find out which of the three Democrats gets the Democratic Party nomination?

If this sounds confusing, it is. Candidates covet the state Party's endorsement because with it comes the right to send mail at a big discount and to funnel nearly unlimited sums of money into otherwise contribution-capped campaigns. In the case of Ms. Migden, her senate colleagues were poised to pump in hundreds of thousands of dollars, just so one of their own would not be challenged, even though Ms. Migden has become the poster woman for insider corruption. The Party's incumbency protection machinery was in overdrive, but this time it failed.

Chances are that few other than insiders and political junkies would even have known there was a convention, were it not for Mr. Clinton's appeal to the delegates. That made (brief) national news. But why, in this age of instantaneous communication, are there are so many intermediaries between voters and candidates? Why indeed should nominating conventions exist? And why would the state party in California endorse a candidate before the voters decide who wins the Party's primary?

The simple answer is that intermediaries and complex rules favor insiders and those already in power. If you don't know how to play the game, chances are you won't win. And that helps assure that incumbents and power brokers retain their hammer lock on democracy.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been or are on the ballot in every state in the union (save the disputed Michigan and Florida) plus the territories and DC. And in every one of those states, people vote directly (except for caucus states, which are part of the problem) for their choice. Thereafter, the nomination itself is actually conferred at the national convention not by totaling the number of people who voted for each candidate, but by a mathematical allocation of delegates plus those pesky superdelegates. Similarly, in California, every Democrat gets to vote in the June partisan primary, but as the rules now stand, state delegates determine which, if any, candidates are endorsed by the Democratic Party prior to that primary at convention.

Conventions should energize, organize and highlight. They should not be a filter to prevent the people from electing leaders. And they certainly should not be an incumbency protection racket that allows insiders to control the political process. As Howard Dean famously said, "elections are too important to be left up to the politicians."

The Dean and Obama candidacies demonstrate clearly that voters engage in spite of the outdated party structures. Literally millions of people have joined the process this cycle because of the Internet, because their friends and neighbors talk about the energy in the race and because they think that their votes count. Unfortunately, very little of that energy seems to translate to the state level here in California, where polls show that the public believes that special interests decide the outcome of elections. With a Party endorsement available prior to the Party election and with rules that overtly favor incumbents, no wonder the voters pay little attention to the election.

The framers of the constitution did not trust the public to select the chief executive. They also needed a series of compromises to convince the small states to sign the Constitution. The Electoral College addressed both concerns handily. In today's world, the prospect of introducing a mechanism by which to buffer the people's will would be laughable. 2008 should be the last year that any democratic institution insulates itself from the people. While it takes a constitutional amendment to end the Electoral College, it takes only a vote of the Democratic Party delegates to end indirect, manipulated elections. If leaders can't trust their own members and voters, how can the people trust our leaders?