Government 101: Primary voting explained by a high school teacher

  • Laura Moore, the government teacher at Frontier Regional School, explains how the United States’ voting system works. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/28/2020 9:51:46 PM

This story is part of our coverage of Tuesday’s presidential primary election. More stories will be published in the Monday edition.

SOUTH DEERFIELD — What’s a primary? What’s a superdelegate? Why is Iowa such a big deal? What are we voting for, again?

American democracy is complicated. Laura Moore, who teaches government at Frontier Regional School, understands this completely.

In fact, she has been getting a lot of practice lately. Moore also teaches classes on U.S. history, law and economics. But this semester, due to an unusually high enrollment, all of her time is spent teaching government classes.

“It’s a good time to be teaching this class,” she said. “And, I have to say, the students are really interested.”

It starts with federalism, the combination of multiple regional governments into a single political system. The U.S. Constitution establishes a federalist government in which — basically — states are free to do what they want according to their own constitutions, as long as they do not violate the U.S. Constitution.

There is often some inherent legal messiness to political processes that involve the federal government and multiple state governments. Whenever this messiness rears its head in Moore’s lessons, she points at you, looks at you out of the corner of her eye, and says, “Because of federalism.” This makes it a little easier to remember.

There is perhaps no political process that is messier in this regard than the presidential primary election, in which political parties operate across 50 states to nominate their candidates for a highly prestigious, highly coveted, highly controversial position in the federal government.

It’s messy because the U.S. Constitution does not give specific guidelines on how to run an election — leaving states and political parties relatively free to figure it out on their own, Moore said.

Voters do not directly nominate their party’s candidate. Rather, each state sends delegates to the party’s national convention, and they vote on who the party will nominate.

For the most part, a state’s delegates vote according to how that state’s voters instruct them to. But states differ in whether their delegates must all vote the same way. Some use a “winner take all” system, while others have the delegates vote proportionally, according to the results of the state’s primary election.

In Massachusetts, for example, the Democratic Party has 114 delegates who will go to the Democratic National Convention this July in Wisconsin, along with delegates from the other 49 states, to vote to nominate a candidate to run for president in the national election this November.

Massachusetts awards its delegates proportionally. If a Democratic candidate wins 20 percent of the popular vote in this week’s primary election, that candidate will get the votes of 20 percent of Massachusetts’s delegates at the Democratic National Convention in July. To get any delegates at all, a candidate must pass a threshold of winning at least 15 percent of the vote.

The reason Iowa gets special attention in national news coverage of presidential elections is that it happens to be the first state to hold its primary. It is sometimes suggested that Iowa’s results may be indicative of candidates’ viability, but Moore is skeptical of this.

“People say Bernie is gaining steam because of Iowa. But who cares? Everybody is white in Iowa,” she said. “What’s really going to matter? South Carolina, where, I think, 60 percent of the voters are African-American or people of color. California is going to matter because they have so many delegates.”

A political party may also have unique wrinkles in its delegate system. Along with pledged delegates, who agree to vote according to their states’ primary elections, the Democratic Party specifically also has unpledged delegates — commonly called “superdelegates” — who can vote however they want.

Among Massachusetts’ 114 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, only 91 are pledged. Because Massachusetts awards its delegates proportionally, the votes of these 91 delegates will be given to candidates in proportion to the results of this week’s primary.

The other 23 are superdelegates, who are attached to Massachusetts, but whose votes at the Democratic National Convention will not be determined by this week’s primary.

Lately, Moore mentions, there has been speculation that the Democratic Party’s superdelegates might have a special influence in nominating a candidate this summer. The issue is that, so far, Sanders has been able to win primary elections without actually winning any majorities. If this were to continue, he could reach the Democratic National Convention having won more primary elections than any other candidate, but without the support of the majority of the party. Conceivably, if a different candidate had the support of enough superdelegates, it could affect the party’s nomination.

“People are afraid that Sanders will get the nomination, and if he does, many Democrats are afraid that he will not win against Donald Trump,” Moore said. “It will be really interesting to see what happens in July.”

Moore has been teaching social studies at Frontier for 14 years. She grew up in Boston and now lives in Vermont.

Her government class is a graduation requirement, so everyone takes it. But in recent years, she said, her students seem to be more engaged than they used to be. They have issues that they care about — college affordability, human rights, the environment.

“Now, I think, it’s more important than ever. Especially now,” Moore said. “We’re so divided. It’s not one person. It’s not one or two political candidates. It’s not just Donald Trump. There have been a lot of problems going on for a long time that have allowed this to happen.”

The students are aware of it, Moore said. The only political advice she gives them is to vote.

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-930-423     1.


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