Illustration by Mell Montezuma

What Does a Delegate Do Anyway?

We sort out the role of delegates on your South Side ballot

Unlike voters in most other states, Illinoisans voting in the Democratic primary for president won’t just have to choose between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Also on the ballot, right after voters make their pick in their congressional primary: a dizzying array of delegates, some affiliated with candidates that have already dropped out of the race.

The Democratic nominee is not selected by a popular vote. Instead, voters in Illinois and other states will select delegates, who will then vote for a nominee at the Democratic convention in Milwaukee in July. Most delegates are affiliated with a campaign; the name of the candidate they’re supporting appears on the ballot in parentheses after the delegate’s name.

Candidates are awarded delegates based on their performance in each congressional district. If a candidate receives more than fifteen percent of the vote in a district, they’re awarded delegates proportional to their share of the vote. (Delegates affiliated with candidates who have dropped out will also appear on the ballot, but those candidates are unlikely to get more than fifteen percent, so those delegates are unlikely to count.) For example: Illinois’s 1st Congressional District sends eight delegates to the convention. If Sanders and Biden both get around forty-five percent of the vote, each candidate will win four delegates from that congressional district.

Where it gets complicated is in selecting exactly who those delegates are. In the 1st Congressional District, for instance, eleven people are vying to be a delegate affiliated with Bernie Sanders. If he wins four delegates in that district, the four top vote-getters of those eleven will go to the convention. The presidential vote in each district is the only thing that determines how many delegates each candidate gets from each district: even if the fifth-place Sanders delegate got more votes than any of the Biden delegates, if Sanders only won enough votes to send four delegates, the fifth-place Sanders delegate won’t go to the convention.

There are also certain requirements to ensure that Illinois sends a balanced slate of female and male delegates to the convention. In the 1st District, the Illinois Democratic Party’s Delegate Selection Plan requires four male and four female delegates to be elected, so it’s possible that a delegate could be elected despite receiving fewer votes than another in order to comply with those rules.

Timothy Wright, an attorney and a Biden delegate in the 1st District, explained that the campaign thinks strategically when putting together its list of delegates. When selecting its delegates, Wright said, the Biden campaign looked for fairly well-known figures who have “the right kind of character and viewpoint that’s reflective of who [Vice President Biden] is.” The example he offered was Ertharin Cousin, former executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme and another Biden delegate in the 1st District. Cousin, Wright explained, has a “stellar reputation” and a history of being “very active in public service,” which made her the kind of person the Biden campaign would want to represent them on the ballot and in Milwaukee. The Sanders campaign works the same way: state Senator Robert Peters, a Sanders delegate in the 1st District, says the campaign reached out to him because he endorsed Sanders back in November (making him one of Sanders’s earliest high-profile endorsements in Chicago).

Wright, notably, has a long history with Biden—he served as director of domestic policy in the Clinton administration, and worked with then-Senator Biden. Many of Biden’s delegates cited similar personal experiences when discussing their decision to run. As former Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp, another Biden delegate, put it, “When you look back decades, you’ll see that Vice President Biden’s ties to our community are strong.”

Deborah Lane is the secretary-treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308, which represents CTA rail workers, as well as a Biden delegate in the 1st District. She met Biden when he campaigned for Democratic candidates in Carbondale in 2018, and said that he “spoke from the heart” when talking to the crowd. Cousin, for her part, explained that she worked with both Joe and Jill Biden during the Obama administration, traveling with Jill Biden to visit communities in sub-Saharan Africa that benefited from U.S. humanitarian aid. Cousin explained that the “catalyst” for her support for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was seeing Jill Biden’s “ability to talk to people as a person, and share and listen to their stories.” She emphasized that witnessing this commitment firsthand gave her the confidence that both Joe and Jill Biden are committed to “ensuring that no child goes hungry, here or any place else in the world.”

Many of the Sanders delegates shared similar stories of personal connections to the candidate. Maureen Sullivan, a realtor, past candidate for 11th Ward alderman, and Sanders delegate in the 3rd District, first heard about Sanders while watching C-Span when,  in 1991, during the First Gulf War, he spoke out against the war to an empty House chamber. Sullivan said she was “impressed with his passion,” and decided to support him because of his consistency on the issues, like student debt and the cost of healthcare, that have directly impacted her life. “He’s been saying the same damn thing for forty years,” she said.

Delegates often do more than simply cast a vote for their candidate at the convention. Lane said she’s spent the last few months phone-banking and fundraising for Biden, and even traveled to the Iowa caucuses to support the campaign. Senator Peters is running his own re-election campaign, but noted that his campaign has knocked on a lot of doors, and when his volunteers are having a conversation with a prospective voter, they talk about Peters, but they also bring up Sanders and other progressive candidates like incumbent State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Jose Requena, a CPS paraprofessional and a Sanders delegate in the 3rd District, manages several pro-Sanders Facebook groups in communities across the country, helping to engage volunteers and win support over social media. He says he sees his role as a delegate as “engaging people and keeping a certain energy consistent,” as well as moving the campaign into new forms of communication like social media.

Beyond their individual work for the campaign, a lot of the appeal of a delegate is in their name, which could sway undecided voters. An undecided voter in the 11th Ward, for instance, might see that Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson is a Biden delegate; if they have a positive opinion of Alderman Thompson, that extra bit of information in the voting booth may push them to vote for Biden. This is why campaigns often recruit local elected officials and other notable names to fill out their delegate slate. Among South Side aldermen, Jeanette Taylor (20th ward) and Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) are Sanders delegates, while Thompson (11th), Pat Dowell (3rd), Roderick Sawyer (6th), and Michelle Harris (8th) are Biden delegates.

If you don’t care which delegates go to Milwaukee to represent your candidate, you can vote for the maximum number of delegates affiliated with the candidate you prefer. If, however, you want to boost a certain candidate—if you’re in the 1st District and you really want Jeanette Taylor to go to Milwaukee as a Bernie Sanders delegate, for instance—you should vote only for that delegate, or however many delegates you strongly prefer. Since the delegates for each candidate are allocated based on whichever candidates for delegate receive the most votes, casting your vote for only the candidate(s) you like the most maximizes their chances of being the top candidate among all the delegate candidates for your candidate in your district.

You are also able to vote for delegates representing different candidates, a tactic advocated by the 11th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, which lists both Thompson and Sullivan on its palm card. But listing delegates for multiple candidates doesn’t mean the Daleys have suddenly turned into Berniecrats—it’s simply a recognition that both Sanders and Biden are likely to win delegates in the district. Their recommended vote for Sullivan and Thompson, both Bridgeport residents, doesn’t help either of the candidates they’re affiliated with; instead, it helps ensure that, no matter who gets delegates from the 3rd District, a Bridgeport resident will be representing the district in Milwaukee.

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Sam Joyce is the nature editor and a managing editor of the Weekly. He last covered the closure of Pullman café bakery ‘Laine’s Bake Shop and an exhibit of macro-photography at a Kenwood church for the Weekly’s Arts Issue.

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