The rules behind unbound delegates are a Rubik's cube unto themselves, we tried to make it a little less painful.

“Unbound delegates,” “unpledged delegates,” “superdelegate” – these are the names by which certain players in the primary election process go. This group helps nominate the presidential candidates for the Republican and Democratic parties.

Unlike other delegates (covered here), these folks’ votes at the party conventions this summer are not necessarily based upon how the public voted in their states’ primary or caucuses.

Who are these super-people? Why do they exist? And what might they mean for this election?

Bumper bowling

On the Democratic side, superdelegates help the established members of the party maintain some amount of control over who the nomination process. As former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown put it, “You have superdelegates because … You don’t want bleed-over from the Green Party, the independents and others in deciding who your nominee will be.”

Only candidates in the two major parties have a shot at the presidency (a topic for another article entirely), so you might get people running on the Democratic ticket who don’t really represent the party’s more centrist positions. Superdelegates provide a way for the Democratic Party to preserve its established tack.

Supers can serve another function, explains Jonathan Bernstein at BloombergView. In a race with three or more candidates, it’s possible that one wouldn’t get the majority of delegates (candidates need over 50 percent in order to win the nomination). Supers could help tip one over into majority status.

This isn’t relevant in the current election, because there are only two Democratic candidates in the race now. Bernstein notes that, if the popular vote is close between two candidates, it’s possible for superdelegates to tip the election, though this has never happened before.

The supers became highly controversial in 2008 as the race heated up between then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. As explained at HowStuffWorks, superdelegates are overrepresented (or perhaps the rest of us are underrepresented) at the party convention where the nominee is chosen: “Superdelegates have one vote for one person; those pledged delegates that are earned through primaries can represent thousands of individuals.” A delegate earned during a primary can represent votes cast by thousands of people.

The Republican Party is doing things differently than the Democrats this year; members of the Republican National Committee (RNC) used to be unbound, but this year they’re bound to vote according to state primaries or caucuses.

However, there are still some unbound characters lurking on the GOP side. The Republican Party leaves certain rules about delegate allocation up to the states. Those that choose to cut their delegates loose may be doing so in the interest of maintaining some control over the party; the RNC itself may leave it up to states simply because the party has a long association with supporting state rights and a distaste for federal regulation.

How many do we have here?

As with regular (bound) delegates, there are a different number of unbound delegates on the Democratic and Republican sides. Let’s start with Democrats, because (as with bound delegates!) they make things easier for us than their brethren to the right.

There are 712 unbound Democratic delegates known as superdelegates, according to the Associated Press. They make up about 15 percent of the total delegates allotted, and 30 percent of those needed to win (2,382). What VIPs get this special designation? Party big-wigs, essentially: past presidents and vice presidents, members of the Democratic National Committee, current Congresspeople, and Democratic governors.

Now might be a good time to grab a cup of coffee, because we’re going to enter the world of fuckery that is the GOP’s unbound delegate tally. Some wiggle room in the Republican Party rules allows states and territories to finagle unbound delegates should they so choose, and six have done so.

We’re going to get help from professor of political science and election junkie Josh Putnam, whose blog Frontloading HQ has kept me from pulling my hair out many times. There’s a loophole in the RNC rules: Republican delegates are bound by primaries/caucuses which feature a preference vote; VoteSmart explains that a preference vote means you’re voting for a specific presidential candidate.

But the rules don’t require such a vote to take place. The alternative is for people to vote for delegates to select the candidate at the party’s convention, and that’s what’s up with North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.

… Kind of. North Dakota is the most unbound of the three; in Wyoming and Colorado, delegates up for election have to let voters know who they’ll support at the convention. This is their pledge, and party rules bind them to their pledge (unless the candidate in question drops out). But delegates can run “uncommitted,” meaning they can be elected without making a pledge, which would technically make them unbound.

There are 37 delegates in Colorado, three of them RNC members; it appears that the three RNC members can’t be bound, since there’s no preference vote. So, potentially 37 unbound delegates from Colorado, although 34 can be bound by a pledge. Wyoming has 29 delegates in all (including three RNC members – every state gets three of those).

Then there’s Pennsylvania. In this state, there is something like a primary election (preference vote) but, for some reason, it doesn’t really count. In Pennsylvania, 54 of the 71 total delegates will be unbound. These delegates will be elected during the primary, according to Ballotpedia, and the RNC guide to the primaries states they’ll be elected specifically as unbound. Because…Pennsylvania?

It’s similar in North Dakota, except the Dakotans won’t bother with a non-binding preference vote. But as with Pennsylvania, the delegate candidates in this state don’t pledge to support any presidential candidate as part of their nomination process. These delegates are truly free-wheelers as well, and the state has 28 of them.

And then there’s Guam and American Samoa, each of which has nine delegates. There is no preference poll, and delegates don’t have to indicate who they support before the convention, and are therefore unbound.

So how many unbound RNC delegates are there? We simply don’t know right now – it depends on who else drops out of the race and how many “uncommitted” delegates (if any) get elected in states without preference votes.

With Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Guam, and American Samoa, we’ve got a total of 100 that are truly unbound. Factoring in Colorado and Wyoming, anywhere from zero to 66 more could be unbound. So let’s go with the range 100-166 on the Republican side for unbound delegates. That accounts for between about eight and 13 percent of the 1,237 needed to win the nomination.

High-five for making it this far.

Influence in a crazed election

The 2016 election is bizarre. On each side of the aisle we have anti-establishment candidates – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – performing well. Trump’s the clear GOP front-runner, and Sanders has kept things competitive with Clinton. The GOP does not want Donald Trump as its new face, and the Democratic Party probably isn’t too thrilled about an up-until-recently registered Independent, self-identified Democratic Socialist threatening to shift the party left.

If one of the other Republican candidates picks up steam throughout the primary election and comes in close with Trump, the unbound delegates could help knock Trump out of the winner’s slot, although there really aren’t that many to do so. If the race is tight between Clinton and Sanders, the supers could tip it to Clinton.

Part of the reason Sanders supporters are raging against the superdelegate machine is that, after Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders had a slight lead with delegates won from those two contests – 36 to 32. However, after factoring in superdelegates who’ve already expressed support for a candidate, Clinton was leading 481 to 55.

It’s important to note, though, that superdelegates are not bound by their early pledges of support, and can change their minds at any point. The candidates only have the number of bound delegates from the primaries and caucuses at this time. And if Sanders emerges with a clear lead over Clinton in the popular vote, the supers could decide to save themselves and their party a massive public outcry by switching to Sanders.

Democracy? Fairness? What about those things?

All this raises a couple of important questions.

First: Are unbound delegates fair? If they exist to represent the interests of political parties and not the people, should they have disproportionate power in the nomination of presidential candidates?

A second, indirect question also worth asking: If the people are voting en masse for anti-establishment candidates, is it about time for the established two-party system to reform or phase out?

What do you think about the superdelegate process? Should parties reserve the ability to reject the choice of the popular vote? Let us know on Facebook or in the comments below.

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Posted 03.03.2016 - 04:45 pm EST