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Your vote counts, but maybe not as much as you might think.

Prior to 1972, the primaries and caucuses weren’t deterministic; that’s how Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee in 1968 without competing in a single primary,” Jewitt said.

Caitlin Jewitt

Caitlin Jewitt (Photo by Ryan Young)

The Democratic Party subsequently made changes to offer voters what they asserted was more “meaningful participation.” That meant connecting primaries and caucuses more closely to the candidate nominated at the convention. Although the national party did reform aspects of its nominating procedure, state governments and state parties also wield significant ability to shape results by enacting rules that affect the dates of a vote, designating proportional representation or winner-take-all tabulation, and determining who is allowed to vote in primaries.

How do these regulations affect voters’ influence?

Let’s start with the order in which states vote. Because the presidential nomination process plays out over several months, voters in some states have more of a say in who becomes the nominee than others. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, home to the first caucus and primary, matter quite a bit in shaping the field of candidates. Voters in states whose primaries fall later in the year typically choose from a smaller pool and sometimes cast a ballot after a frontrunner has effectively sealed the nomination.

Sometimes state parties change rules to try to achieve specific objectives. In 1988, Virginia Democrats switched to a Super Tuesday primary at the behest of former Gov. Charles Robb. After Jesse Jackson won the primary, Democratic party elites pushed to move back to a caucus, although it remains unclear over whether it was because they were unhappy with the results or because they wanted to boost the potential candidacy of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder in 1992.

Parties also decide how delegates are allocated to candidates. The delegates attend each party’s national convention, where the nomination is ultimately decided. Under proportional representation—used by Democrats since 1992—delegates are allocated only to candidates whose numbers tally more than 15 percent of a vote. This means that if you vote for a candidate that receives less than 15 percent of the vote in the state or district, the candidate will receive no delegates.

Republicans, meanwhile, allow state parties to choose between proportional representation and winner-take-all, in which the winner receives all of the delegates no matter how close the vote. “Starting in 2012, the Republican Party said if you’re going to vote early, before April, you have to use proportional representation,” Jewitt said. “They’re trying to encourage states to move contests to April or later and lengthen the nomination season.” That carrot-and-stick approach was intended to prevent states from front-loading their nominating contests early in an attempt to gain influence on the process.

On the Democratic side, the biggest change for 2020 involves superdelegates—party elites and elected officials, such as members of Congress, governors, and former presidents, who aren’t bound by the results of primaries or caucuses in their states. In 2016, Hillary Clinton racked up hundreds of commitments from superdelegates even before the Iowa caucuses, which frustrated supporters of Bernie Sanders, her biggest rival.

Following 2016, the Democratic Party created a Unity Reform Commission to study the process and make recommendations. One of its resolutions was that superdelegates be allowed to vote on the first ballot at the convention only if their vote will not be decisive. If it’s a contested convention and no candidate can get a majority on the first ballot, then superdelegates will vote on the second ballot.

That change retains the superdelegates, but diminishes their power to shape the overall process.

All of these guidelines affect how much each vote during the primary process counts. Jewitt said that voters do have a say—but just how much of a say depends on factors controlled by the parties.

Citizens cast a vote in the process that chooses candidates, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. It’s not as straightforward as we might hope or expect.

Caitlin Jewitt, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, has taught at Virginia Tech for six years. The author of “The Primary Rules: Parties, Voters, and Presidential Nominations,” published in 2019, Jewitt has researched the method and timing of the nomination process, which is determined by national and state political parties, as well as state governments, and how related decisions influence the extent to which each vote matters in a presidential primary.