Love them or hate them, by some miracle, the presidential candidates most likely to win their party’s nomination this year are the same folks nabbing the popular vote. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both proved enormously popular in state primaries and caucuses — but our voting system is so convoluted that this fact doesn’t necessarily guarantee either candidate will score the nomination, as John Oliver reminded us on Last Week Tonight.
You can blame the confusing universe of delegates and superdelegates for that. Back in March, when Trump won the Louisiana state primary, Ted Cruz still managed to rack up 10 delegates in the state — and Trump did not hide his disdain for a system that allows this to happen. Perhaps, for the first time in history, Oliver sided with Trump and echoed his sentiment: “When you see results like that, the process does feel counterintuitive.”
While many Americans assume they are entering a voting booth and casting their vote for the candidate they prefer, they’re actually voting for convention “pledged” delegates who support the preferred candidate in that state. But superdelegates, which comprise 15% of delegates in the Democratic party (The Republican party does not have superdelegates), are unpledged party leaders and elected official delegates who can vote for whomever the heck they choose.
Technically, if a superdelegate doesn’t like a candidate, even if he or she won the primary, this powerful person can “step in” and help change the course of the election — and your average voter has no say in it.
Oliver points out that, although party leaders say superdelegates do not use their power this way, their very existence is a powerful statement to Americans, one that reminds us we don’t have as much control over the selection of our elected officials as we might think.
“If they’re not going to make a difference, why take the risk of having them at all?” Oliver asked.
As for the GOP, they may not have superdelegates, but they do have “unbound delegates.” These individuals are not obligated to vote for the same candidate in that state — but, oh, if only it were that simple. Each state has its own rule regarding how free these delegates are to cast their vote. In some cases, voters may not know who they are voting for when choosing delegates for the convention because there’s no way of telling who those delegates are supporting.
“They’re basically private clubs,” Oliver said. “They can set their own rules.”
If you’re fed up with the confounding mess that has become the primary and caucus, Oliver has a suggestion: pick a date next year, write emails to the chairs of each party and demand change. Because, as he puts it, Trump and Clinton may be the people’s candidates this time around, but: “There’s no guarantee that the candidate with the most votes will win next time.”