Delegates Decoded: A Guide To That Lengthy Part Of Your Ballot

Illinois Primary Ballot
Democratic voters in Chicago will find dozens of names on their ballot when they vote in the March 17 Illinois primary. Mary Hall / WBEZ
Illinois Primary Ballot
Democratic voters in Chicago will find dozens of names on their ballot when they vote in the March 17 Illinois primary. Mary Hall / WBEZ

Delegates Decoded: A Guide To That Lengthy Part Of Your Ballot

There are just a few Democratic presidential candidates left in the race, but blue voters in Illinois are still going to see dozens of names on their ballots March 17.

There are 13 people still listed as running for president. But there is also another lengthy list: all the Illinoisans running to be delegates to the party’s national convention.

To avoid the ballot turning into a medieval scroll, the Chicago Board of Elections hired a graphic designer to fit all the delegate names required on each ballot, which depending on where you live, could exceed 40.

“We've never had a set of delegate contests this huge,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections.

The winnowing field of presidential candidates could help voters sort more quickly through the delegates section, but here’s what you should know about picking who should represent you in the party’s formal candidate nominating process.

What is a delegate?

A delegate is a person who attends the Democratic or Republican National Convention and votes for a candidate to become the party’s official nominee.

If you’re a Republican in Illinois, you can vote for three delegates and three alternates, no matter where you live. If you’re a Democrat, it’s a lot more complicated.

Illinois has 184 delegates and voters get to directly pick 101 of them. Because the field of candidates is — er, was — so large, voters who pull Democratic ballots may see more than 40 choices for delegate, depending on where they live.

All delegates are pledged to a candidate, and the ballot will indicate the candidate’s name in parentheses.

“It's a level of democracy that I believe is incredibly important,” said Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson. “You're voting for your neighbors to show up and support and carry out the ideas that that particular candidate ran on.”

Johnson is running as a delegate in the 1st congressional district where he lives. On the ballot, he’s pledged to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but since she dropped out, he has endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

What if I want to support a delegate pledged to a candidate who dropped out?

In order for a person who’s running to be a delegate to actually become a delegate, their candidate must get at least 15% of the state’s popular vote. Unless Warren secures those votes, Johnson won’t be a delegate this year.

“The delegates for candidates who have dropped out really have very little chance of becoming delegates to the convention,” said Mary Morrissey, executive director of the Illinois Democratic Party.

Ald. Matt Martin,47th Ward, is also on the ballot as a delegate for Warren, but now that she’s out of the race, he’s also endorsed Sanders. Like Johnson, it’s not likely he’ll be a delegate at the national convention in Milwaukee in July.

Martin said he’ll support the people running for delegate in his area who were already pledged to Sanders.

I’m undecided. Can I split up my delegate votes?

The short answer: “Yeah, you could,” Morrissey said,

Chicago voters who lived through the last mayoral election are no stranger to having a lot of options and finding it difficult to choose. So divvying up delegate votes might be a great option.

Morrissey gave an example of how delegates could be divided in the 1st Congressional District on Chicago’s West Side where voters can select up to eight delegates.

“Let’s say they split 50/50, each of them will get four delegates,” Morrissey explained.

But, the splitting of delegates will only come into play if there is a brokered convention, in which no candidate has earned a majority of delegates before the convention to be the clear nominee. A Democratic candidate needs 1,991 delegates to secure the nomination.

“You might trust the judgment of a certain (person) because they've made policy decisions that align with your values,” Morrissey said. “You can vote for that individual, knowing that if it becomes, say, a brokered convention, that they will more than likely represent your views at the convention.”

What about the delegates won in other states by candidates that have now dropped out? 

Because Illinois isn’t one of the first states to vote in the primary, it is unlikely that any candidate who dropped out would get over the 15% threshold needed to put their delegates in play.

But in other states, there are a number of delegates pledged to candidates who dropped out that voters picked to go to the convention. They are now basically free agents.

“There's no way for Buttigieg (former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg) to compel those delegates to support Biden (former Vice President Joe Biden),” Morrissey said.

In other words, while most of the candidates who have dropped out have endorsed Biden, their delegates are not required to vote for him at the convention.

However, history tells us those uncommitted delegates will ultimately pick the leading candidate by the time the convention rolls around.

“Functionally, all the delegates are going to throw their support behind the one remaining candidate,” Martin said.

How many delegates can I vote for?

The directions will say how many you can choose, so pay attention.

“Avoid over voting,” said Jim Allen, with the Chicago Board of Elections. “If it says ‘vote for up to five’ or ‘vote for up to seven,’ you don't want to pick eight and have all of your selections not counted.”

The touch screen voting machines won’t allow you to make more selections than your ballot allows. And if you’re voting by mail and haven’t yet sent in your ballot, you can still make changes, even if you already marked it up.

“As long as we can determine the voters’ intent, they can even scribble in a note like, ‘This one, yes. No to that one.’” Allen said. “As long as you clearly mark the intent, and you cross out any mistakes, we're going to be able to determine what you meant to do.”

Becky Vevea covers city of Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.