Revisionist historians in the Bush administration are now saying the war in Iraq had less to do with finding weapons of mass destruction than with promoting democracy in the region. In recent weeks, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the international community have been debating the most effective way to transfer power back to the Iraqi people. With its usual fondness for undue complexity, the U.S. government has proposed a convoluted plan to hold political caucuses in all 18 Iraqi provinces. Those caucuses will, in turn, select a general assembly that will later choose an interim government to rule the country until free and open elections can be held. But last week, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan suggested that direct elections would be less likely to infuriate the country's Shiite majority. He is suggesting holding direct elections by the end of May, presumably before Halliburton secures the no-bid contract on party hats, balloons and campaign bunting.
Watching the Iraqis wrestle with the thorny issues of creating a democratic process left me wondering just how much the average Vermonter knows about our own convoluted electoral procedures. A quick anecdotal survey revealed that even those who've spent years watching Vermont politics are hazy on how votes cast at their local elementary schools help nominate a presidential contender. So, here's how it all works:
First, the fundamentals. In Vermont, unlike most states, citizens do not declare party affiliations when they register to vote. As a result, no one really knows how many Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, Libertarians, Constitutionalists or Marijuana Tax Party members are out there knocking on doors, collecting signatures, dispensing donuts or hitting the bong.
However, the Vermont Secretary of State's office does track how many people vote in the state's presidential primaries, which are held every four years on Town Meeting Day. At this year's Town Meeting Day, on Tuesday, March 2, registered voters may choose whichever party primary they wish to vote in, but may only vote in one.
Each political party has its own rules for nominating candidates for national office. This year, only the Democrats and Republicans are holding presidential primaries, though Vermont's minor parties such as the Constitution and Libertarian groups will field presidential candidates, who will be selected at their respective national conventions. Vermont's Progressive Party has no national organization and thus will not field a presidential challenger.
For the Republicans, the March 2 primary is, for all intents and purposes, "just a beauty contest," as one former party official describes it. No, that's not because George W. Bush is the obvious nominee. Under party bylaws, the outcome of the Republican primary has no real bearing on the selection of delegates to the national convention. Instead, each Vermont town with a Republican organization will meet after the primary and select two delegates to the state convention.
At the state convention, which will be held on May 15, Republican delegates from around Vermont will select 18 delegates and 18 alternates to represent Vermont at the Republican National Convention in New York City beginning August 30. It's a winner-take-all proposition, with Vermont's entire delegation going to the candidate who garners the party's endorsement, in this case President Bush.
The Democrats' nominating process will be more interesting to watch this year, since (as of press time) an undisputed frontrunner has yet to emerge. In Vermont, five candidates have filed to be on the Democratic primary ballot: Howard Dean, John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Dennis Kucinich and Lyndon LaRouche.
On March 27, Democratic voters throughout the state will hold town caucuses to elect delegates to the State Delegate Selection Convention, which will be held on Saturday, May 22. Any of the five candidates who garner more than 15 percent of the primary vote will be apportioned that percentage of delegates. So, for example, if Howard Dean gets 75 percent of the vote and John Kerry 25 percent, then 75 percent of the delegates to the state convention will represent Dean, and the remaining 25 percent will represent Kerry.
Delegates at the state convention will split into caucuses depending upon how Vermonters vote in the primary. Out of that convention -- and subsequent party meetings -- will come a total of 22 delegates and four alternates who will represent Vermont at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July 26-29. Those delegates are either "pledged" or "unpledged" to a specific candidate.
Among the unpledged delegates are six "super-delegates" -- elected officials like Sen. Patrick Leahy and Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, and party leaders like state Democratic Chair Scudder Parker -- who do not have to disclose which candidate they are backing. Unlike the Republican system, the state's representatives to the 2004 Democratic national convention will be roughly proportional to the votes cast in Vermont's Democratic primary.
Still confused? On Saturday, Feb. 7, the Vermont Democratic Party will hold a training session at Randolph Elementary School for anyone interested in participating in the delegate-election process. Interestingly, all Democratic voters in Vermont are eligible to become national delegate candidates, except those who have participated in the delegate-selection process of another party.
And though it remains to be seen what Iraq's democracy will eventually look like, we can only hope it doesn't include the words "electoral college."