American democracy? Primary rules test the idea

What GOP delegates mean at a brokered convention
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Story highlights

  • The U.S. has a unique brand of democracy
  • In the primaries, tradition often trumps the ideal

(CNN)Arcane bylaws, unbound superdelegates, closed primaries, 10-second speeches at state party conventions -- Is this really how democracy works?

The vagaries of the American political party primary system are on full, often confounding display this election season as outsider candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with their bursting rallies and vocal grassroots support, struggle with the fine print of American politics.
    Constitutional wonks will be quick to note the U.S. is not a "direct," but rather a "representative democracy" -- meaning there is, be it in electing presidents or passing laws, a legally enshrined buffer between the will of the people and political outcomes.
    Donald Trump slams 'rigged' system after Colorado loss
    BOULDER, CO - OCTOBER 28:  Presidential candidates Donald Trump pauses during  the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate at University of Colorados Coors Events Center October 28, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado.  Fourteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the third set of Republican presidential debates.

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    Founding father and future President John Adams warned that bad or selfish decisions by the masses could lead to a "tyranny of the majority." David Gergen, a CNN political commentator and political insider for the modern era, defended the Democratic Party process on CNN Wednesday, saying its free agent and undemocratic "superdelegates" are akin to "checks and balances in the constitutional system" and offer a sort of corporate-style "peer review."
    But those arguments are cold comfort to diehard partisans wondering why party grandees, "superdelegates," who overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton, get more of a say than Joe Public. Jane Sanders, Bernie Sanders' wife, on Wednesday questioned the "democratic" nature of the contest.
    Jane Sanders: Delegate system's not rigged, it's wrong
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    Jane Sanders: Delegate system's not rigged, it's wrong 01:21
    For Donald Trump, who leads the GOP race but has seen his advantage undermined by clever, effective (and totally legal) gamesmanship by Ted Cruz's campaign, the answer has been to attack his own party. The billionaire has called the Republican process "a rigged, disgusting, dirty system."
    So just how convoluted has the presidential selection process become?
    Let us count the ways.

    Pennsylvania Republicans flying blind

    Donald Trump has spent the better part of a week complaining that Colorado Republicans never got a proper say in allotting their delegates. In Pennsylvania, the issue will swing back maddeningly in the other direction. Voters there on April 26 will directly elect three delegates from each of 18 congressional districts. All 54 (of a state total of 71) will enter the Cleveland convention unbound. That means that they won't technically be required to vote for any candidate in particular, despite the Pennsylvania results.
    While the primary ballot shows the names of the delegate candidates, it does not indicate which campaign they plan to back at the convention. And even if those candidates make their plans public, as some have, there is nothing in party, state or federal law to prevent them from changing their minds once elected.

    Rise of the zombie delegates?

    With Donald Trump's path to 1,237 delegates in doubt, planning and plotting for a contested convention is well underway. Ted Cruz's campaign has so far shown itself to be the best-drilled on the art of this very complicated deal. One of its tactics -- on display now in Arizona -- has been to recruit the Texas senator's supporters to fill Trump delegate slots in Cleveland. It sounds nuts, but the concept is really simple, smart and potentially very powerful. Because most delegates in most states are bound to vote one way on the first convention ballot, those individuals' personal loyalties don't really matter...
    ...until a second or third ballot. That's when a "Trump delegate" -- a person, in theory, elected for the sole purpose of nominating Trump -- can very quickly become a critical vote for Ted Cruz.

    10 seconds of madness in Colorado

    In 2015, the Colorado GOP canceled its tradition presidential preference poll, saying it didn't want its delegates bound to early caucus results. Some state Republicans worried the decision would effectively take Colorado off the primary map. Quite the opposite. The new process has come under intense, national scrutiny in the past week, after Ted Cruz locked up all 34 delegates in congressional and state meetings.
    Colorado's delegates were decided, 10 seconds at a time
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    Colorado's delegates were decided, 10 seconds at a time 02:32
    They will now be bound to vote for Cruz for at least one ballot at the national convention this summer. After that, they become free agents.

    Who is representing the Virgin Islands?

    Good question. This will be a decision for the national party, which is now expected to be presented with two slates of delegates both claiming to legitimately represent the USVI GOP in Cleveland.
    The first group, led by a Republican strategist from Michigan named John Yob, was elected at a March 10 caucus and is unbound. The second, named by the Virgin Islands GOP chairman -- who, per RNC rules, will attend along with two local party committee members -- is a mixed bag featuring one Trump and one Cruz delegate.
    The dispute is ongoing and could remain undecided until the delegations arrive at the convention this summer.

    Delegates unchained!

    Say what you want about shadowy contested convention maneuvering, the most flagrantly undemocratic delegate games are being played in plain sight.
    Both the Democrats and Republicans award voting freedom to a number of state and national party officials, elected leaders and elder statesmen.
    This is what the Dem superdelegate race looks like
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      This is what the Dem superdelegate race looks like

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    This is what the Dem superdelegate race looks like 01:58
    On the left, they're called "superdelegates" and they make up an estimated 712 of the 4,763 total votes. Among them, former President Bill Clinton. He gets a lifetime ticket as a "distinguished party leader." As of Thursday, Hillary Clinton has the promised support of 486 "superdelegates" to Bernie Sanders' 38. That means two-thirds of her current lead is pegged to autonomous convention delegates.
    Asked in February by CNN's Jake Tapper to explain the need for "superdelegates," Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was blunt.
    "Unpledged delegates exist," she said, "really to make sure that party leaders and elected officials don't have to be in a position where they are running against grassroots activists."
    On the Republican side, the number of automatically unpledged voters is 143 -- which could be a very big number when you consider Trump is currently on a pace to miss clinching a nominating majority by a little less than that number. The free agents here include the state party chairs and RNC committeemen and committeewomen (one each, from every delegation).

    Why-owa?

    For nearly four decades, the Iowa caucuses have enjoyed their place as the first-in-the-nation nominating contests. Victory there for an upstart candidate can launch a Cinderella run, while a disappointing result for one of the early favorites can set off an untimely death spiral.
    So what did the good people of Iowa -- with a population roughly one-third of New York City's -- do to deserve such outsized influence?
    Well, the political professionals who count on the quadrennial contest for a payday -- and the newsfolk who count on the caucuses for some early drama -- have done plenty to build up Iowa's perch.
    But it all began with a clever ruse.
    Tom Whitney, the state Democratic chair from 1973 to 1977, explained to Iowa Public Television how his colleagues very purposefully drew the eyes and affection of the primary season.
    "After the '74 elections," he said, "we organized a very, very significant kind of effort to convince first the candidates that they ought to be in Iowa because the national press was going to be here, and then to convince the national press that they should be in Iowa because the candidates were going to be here."
    Smart -- just like the founding fathers wrote it up!

    And then there's the Electoral College

    Surely the source of the lion's share of election year agita -- at least until now -- the Electoral College might be the most obviously dubious feature of the presidential selection process. Rather than count on a simple majority from U.S. voters, candidates are drawn to "battleground states" like, say, Florida. George W. Bush won the state by only few hundred votes in 2000, but he gobbled up every one of its pivotal 25 electoral votes. And with that, despite losing the popular vote, entered the White House.
    Anti-democratic?
    Not really.
    Weird?
    No doubt.