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VOL. 130 | NO. 249 | Wednesday, December 23, 2015

March 1 Presidential Primary Begins Complex Process

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County’s first election of 2016 seems like a simple affair. The Tennessee presidential primaries and countywide primaries for General Sessions Court Clerk are the only items on the ballot.

There are two sets of primaries on the March 1 election ballot, the Tennessee Presidential primaries and countywide primaries for General Sessions Court Clerk. But there are 224 names on the ballot, including delegates to be elected in the Republican Presidential primary.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But the ballot approved last week by the Shelby County Election Commission includes 224 names. Only three of those names are the contenders in the two primaries for clerk. And another 17 are the presidential candidates.

The rest are those who want to be delegates representing Tennessee to the Republican National Convention July 18-21 in Cleveland, Ohio.

For the state Democratic and Republican parties, the choices voters make March 1 for the Presidential contenders trigger a more complex process of selecting the delegates to the July conventions that will formally pick each party’s national nominee.

But the two parties use different methods and formulas based on congressional districts, voter turnout in past presidential elections and how much of the statewide primary vote a presidential candidate gets.

Republican presidential primary voters cast ballots for delegates and candidates on the March 1. Those participants vote for 14 committed and uncommitted delegates, who will be part of the Tennessee delegation to the Republican National Convention.

And they vote for delegates by the congressional districts they live in, with the 8th and 9th congressional districts on the ballot in different parts of Shelby County.

“You’ll be voting for someone local to be a delegate for that candidate,” said Mary Wagner, chairwoman of the Shelby County Republican Party. “You may know the individual serving as a delegate. It kind of gives a local aspect to it.”

There are 14 Republican presidential contenders on the Tennessee primary ballot, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who suspended his campaign Monday, Dec. 21. But only 10 of the 14 have a slate of delegates for Republican voters to select from.

Graham as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore and former New York Gov. George Pataki have no delegates on the ballot.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has the largest selection of delegates statewide with 28 choices. Businessman Donald Trump has a slate of 27 choices for pledged delegates.

“Each of the campaigns are trying to fill their delegates and some are doing so more easily than others,” Wagner said. “There’s a lot of interest. It’s an exciting time to be a delegate at the national convention.”

Democrats have no delegates statewide or local on the March 1 ballot, just the three Democratic presidential contenders.

The process involves the same general effort toward apportionment by formula but a different selection method.

“You have to declare for a particular candidate,” said Randa Spears, chairwoman of the Shelby County Democratic Party. “You have to declare without knowing who’s won the primary.”

That’s also the case in the Republican delegate selection. But the two parties differ on when those who want to be delegates declare and how they are selected.

“I think it is confusing,” Spears said. “It seems so simple to me. But when I talk about it, it sure is complicated.”

Democrats who want to be pledged delegates to a particular candidate begin declaring Jan. 4.

While early voting is underway in February, state Democratic party officials will be submitting a list of unpledged party leaders and elected officials who will be delegates from Tennessee to the convention.

Those unpledged delegates will include U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen and Jim Cooper, the state’s two Democratic congressmen.

The March 1 presidential primary is the next step in determining who the delegates will be.

A Democratic candidate has to get at least 15 percent of the vote in a congressional district to get any delegates from that district.

For Republicans it’s a 20 percent threshold “as a basic rule of thumb,” said Tennessee Republican Party executive director Brent Leatherwood.

If no candidate gets at least 20 percent of the vote, there are contingencies in the GOP rules.

The Saturday after election day, March 5, county Democratic conventions across the state will be held. That is followed by Congressional district conventions on March 19 for those delegates selected at the March 5 conventions.

“On the 19th is when the delegates will elect the national delegates to go to the convention,” Spears said, referring to the July 25-28 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “This is a very small number.”

Apportioning delegates by county and congressional district is done with a formula that balances total population and the average vote for Democratic candidates in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

The predominantly Memphis 9th Congressional District has the most Democratic delegates of any of the state’s nine districts, with eight, followed by the seven in the Nashville-based 5th Congressional district.

After the March conventions at the county and congressional district level, the state Democratic Party selects the state’s nine pledged party leaders and elected officials as delegates in April.

It is a complexity that politicos who regard being a convention delegate as a high honor accept as part of the turf.

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