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A Meaningless Primary Explored

With nominations all but locked, what's the value of a no-contest competition?

by | Mar 12, 2024 | Articles, Opinion, Politics

The sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, once advised to “always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” Such wise counsel may be little comfort to those who today (March 12) – by virtue of being later on the calendar – will be casting their primary ballots in races that are essentially done deals.

For voters of both parties in Georgia, Mississippi, and Washington, as well as Democrats abroad and in the Northern Mariana Islands, and Republicans in Hawaii, the day’s contests will not determine which candidate their respective parties put forward to become the 2024 presidential nominee. Certainly, their ballots will add those extra few delegates to make the presumptives the officials, but with no other major alternative candidates hanging on, President Joe Biden and Donald Trump have the arena to themselves.

Completing the Primary End Run

According to the Associated Press tally, Biden has 1,866 pledged Democrat delegates; to hit the majority and secure his nomination, he needs 1,968 – just 102 more to go. In fact, Biden only needs to take all the delegates in Georgia (108) to settle the matter. In total, 252 are on the table.

Trump is 140 delegates shy of becoming the official Republican nominee (he is presently on 1,075). There are 161 GOP delegates up for grabs across today’s four races, so he might not cross the finish line until next Tuesday, March 19, when five more states hold their contests – including delegate-rich Florida.

It is wildly unlikely that either of these men will not gain the delegate majority this month, so what does this mean for the 16 states (and other districts) that hold their nominating contests from April onward?

What Counts?

Playwright Tom Stoppard noted, “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting,” which is more a double-edged quip than a statement of polity. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the showmanship that goes along with elections – the pageantry, pomp, and rhetoric. However, a secondary consideration may suggest that the meaningfulness of one’s vote is what really matters. If your vote has precisely zero impact on the outcome, where, then, is the democracy?

This specifically applies to Democrat voters in Florida and Delaware, where the party has decided to simply remove that quandary from their troubled minds.

In October 2023, the Florida Democratic Party – in an extremely under-the-radar meeting – determined that all potential candidate nominations must be submitted and sent to state officials by Nov. 30. With such little notice for applicants to complete their paperwork, only Biden was entered on the ballot, meaning all 250 delegates are automatically his without a single vote being cast. Erstwhile Democrat candidate Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota decried the move, saying:

“I’m running for president because I believe in the value of democratic choice. It is absolutely appalling to see that an element of my party, the Florida Democratic Party, has decided to throw away the fundamentals of American government. We need to repair our Democracy, not erode it.”

Localized outrage ensued due to claims that possible contenders were not informed of the Nov. 30 deadline in due time. A similar situation occurred in Delaware, the president’s home state.

But Does It Really Matter?

The voters in 16 states who are casting ballots in a contest that has already been decided may rightly feel somewhat ignored. Being early on the primary calendar carries a certain weight, which goes partway to explain why Democrats ditched Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of South Carolina as the first state to vote in the party’s primaries. The Palmetto State not only has a larger black population, but also provided Joe Biden his first 2020 primary win.

Of course, if Biden really wanted to give black voters a more important voice in the process, he would have pushed for Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, or Alabama to take the prime spot. However, none of these would have delivered quite the same margin of victory for Biden, suggesting that the decision was perhaps a case of politics over principle.

Even though the contests in the later voting states seem to be a pointless fight between two “incumbents,” a number of historical primary matches have come down to the wire, with some notable races being decided at the party conventions. So taking part still has value even in a race that is virtually decided: It sends a message. No one likes to be ignored, either personally or politically. Letting candidates know that they need to pay attention to a state’s concerns is often far more difficult than simply sending a letter to your congressman. Even in a supposedly inconsequential vote, a resounding defeat, or even a show of apathy, tends to be quite enough to make an otherwise uninterested politico sit up and take notice.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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