Preparing for upcoming primary race


Have you ever tried to explain a presidential primary to a young person or to a visitor from another country? I don’t recommend it.

Here in New York, we often know more about the Iowa Caucuses than about our own primary system. As nutty as the system is (They stand in corners of a room on a school night? What?), ours is nearly as bizarre. I’ll try to compress the process into 800 words, but I’m sure to leave something out. It may make more sense to work backward.

July 13–July 16: The Democratic Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

You’ve seen this on TV—people in state delegations waving signs and wearing silly hats. The convention names the party’s nominee for president and vice president and adopts a party platform. Delegates choose the nominees by simple majority. You have probably watched the lengthy state roll call that constitutes this vote.

This year, a winning nominee must receive support from a majority of the 3,979 pledged delegates at the convention. But who are those delegates? Where did they come from?

May 12, 2020: The State Convention in Albany, New York.

State Committee members elect 61 at-large (as opposed to district-level) pledged delegates, based on the recommendations of a Nominating Committee that consists of campaign representatives and others. A pledged delegate is committed to a particular candidate, but in New York, no law binds delegates to a candidate on the first or any other ballot at the Democratic Convention in July.

To win at-large delegates and alternates at the State Convention, a candidate must have reached at least 15% of the vote in the New York state primary. If no candidate reaches that percentage, the threshold becomes half the percentage of the vote received by the front-runner.

The State Committee also selects 29 party leaders and elected officials as pledged delegates.

April 28: The New York State Primary

You know that you can vote for your favorite presidential candidate in the primary. However, you may also vote for pledged delegates. Based on a population formula, our Congressional district, CD-23, is allowed six pledged delegates in all, three men and three women. (Nonbinary delegates count as neither, and the remainder of the delegation must be divided by gender as closely as possible.)

Most people vote for the six delegates that match their choice of presidential candidate. However, you may pick and choose, voting for a friend who’s on this slate and a neighbor who’s on that slate, for a total of six in all.

Only candidates who meet the threshold of 15% are viable. Then, delegates are allocated proportionally based on the primary results, but they must be gender equal. That can lead to some odd results.

If Candidate A is the only candidate to get over 15% of the vote in CD-23, all of his or her six delegates will head to the Democratic Convention, no matter how many votes each received.

Now suppose Candidate A wins a majority in CD-23 and Candidates B and C win over 15% but less than Candidate A. Candidate A could end up with his or her top three vote-getting delegates, as long as they are split gender-wise.

Candidate B might get two of his or her own delegates, but which ones would depend on the gender split in Candidate A’s delegation. And Candidate C might get just one delegate, again dependent on the gender split of the other five delegates already selected.

March 6, 2020: Confirmation of “Automatic,” Unpledged Delegates

By this date, the State Committee must confirm the superdelegates. These include Democratic members of Congress, the governor, members of the DNC who live in New York and important party leaders who live in New York (e.g., Bill Clinton).

Unlike in 2016, these superdelegates may not vote on the first ballot at the National Convention. Their votes will only count if voting continues to a second ballot.

Feb. 6, 2020: Deadline for Candidate & Delegate Petitions

Presidential candidates need 5,000 signatures from registered NYS Democrats. District-level delegates need 500 signatures from Democrats in their Congressional District. The delegates circulating petitions in January applied via the campaign to which they are pledged.

Those who win in the primary will be confirmed at the State Convention. They are simply interested Democrats of many different backgrounds who live in the Congressional district. Some of them will represent us in Milwaukee, funny hats optional.

If you are registered with another party or with no party at all, and you want to vote in the presidential Democratic primary, you must re-register as a Democrat with the Board of Elections by Feb. 14.

Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at


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