Awarding presidential delegates by congressional district is unfair

Tamie Dramer asks for votes to be a Bernie Sanders delegate at a May 1 caucus in Sacramento to select delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.
Tamie Dramer asks for votes to be a Bernie Sanders delegate at a May 1 caucus in Sacramento to select delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July.

This year’s presidential primaries have exposed problems in the nomination process, and they’re highlighted by California’s uneven method of awarding its delegates.

Most delegates in Tuesday’s primaries will be awarded to the candidates who win the most votes in each of California’s 53 congressional districts. While that system is designed to ensure that a candidate has widespread support and that delegates come from across the state, it produces bizarre results in districts dominated by one party or the other.

The Republican Party will award three delegates per district. The Democratic Party gives districts between four and nine delegates, based on total population, plus extra delegates to districts with more Democratic voters.

The 13th District in San Francisco has about 260,000 registered Democrats and gets eight delegates, or one delegate per 32,500 voters. But there are just 86,000 registered Democrats in the 42nd and 50th districts, and they each will award five delegates, or one delegate per 17,200 voters. It doesn’t take a math degree to recognize that Democrats in San Francisco will have less power than Democrats elsewhere in the state.

For Republicans, it’s far worse.

There are just 27,000 registered Republicans in the 13th District, or one delegate for every 9,000 voters. But the 48th District in Orange County has more than 155,000 registered Republicans and the same three delegates, or one delegate per 51,000 voters.

It defies common sense that voters who have elected some of the most senior members of the California congressional delegation will have the weakest voices in selecting their parties’ presidential nominees. Awarding delegates by congressional district punishes the very voters who ought to be the most influential in their party’s primary.

That’s because these districts have one purpose: electing members to Congress. They are drawn with roughly equal numbers of people. The “one person, one vote” principle assumes that members of Congress represent all people in the district, regardless of party affiliation.

Presidential primaries, however, are not electing representatives of all the people. They are selecting a standard-bearer for a political party.

The parties could ensure geographic diversity among delegates by requiring that candidates name them from a variety of congressional districts. Admittedly, such a change would not guarantee that nominees have broad geographic support. But in states including California, presidential electors will be awarded on a winner-take-all basis this November, regardless of where in the state a candidate gets support.

The existing system increases the risk that candidates who undermine the Democratic and Republican parties’ core messages will win the nomination. The parties should change their rules to better reflect the preferences of their constituents. Voters should demand no less.

Derek T. Muller is an associate professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law. He can be contacted at