Politics & Policy

The Michigan Mess

Because of a quirk in the rules, the winning candidate may not get the most delegates.

The Republican National Convention will be contested. The main fight, however, won’t be among the candidates, but among the delegates.

Because Arizona and Michigan are holding their primaries today — two days before March 1, the earliest the Republican National Committee said they could hold the elections — each will lose half of its delegates to the convention, per RNC rules. Unlike other states so penalized (New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida), however, these two are challenging the ruling. The state legislatures set the election dates, state-party officials argue, and holding special elections just for the primaries would have cost their states money.

#ad#The Michigan GOP is hoping for clemency. “We would have to change the law in order to accommodate the RNC’s deadline,” says Holly Hughes, national committeewoman for Michigan. “Since the date set by the legislature was only a couple of days from March 1, we decided we should just go ahead with the election as it is.”

“We’re going to be asking for a dispensation from the credentials committee,” says Saul Anuzis, national committeeman for Michigan.

Under the original allotment, Michigan was entitled to 59 delegates: its three state-party officials (state-party chairman, national committeeman, and national committeewoman); 42 congressional-district delegates (three for each of the 14 congressional districts); and 14 at-large delegates. Under the penalty, Michigan gets only 30 delegates, and the state party has decided that, in case the RNC refuses to recognize its full delegation, 28 of them will be congressional-district delegates (two for each district) and only two will be at-large. The Michigan GOP believes “the congressional districts are a better representation of the grassroots,” explains spokesman Matt Frendewey.

The three party-official delegates, meanwhile, are eliminated. Under RNC rules, a penalized state’s party officials are forbidden to serve as delegates.

The Michigan GOP’s decision could have a profound impact on tonight’s results. The congressional-district delegates will go to whichever candidates win pluralities in the respective districts, while the at-large candidates, all two of them, will be awarded proportionately according to the statewide results, with candidates needing to get 15 percent of the vote to qualify. This setup has fueled speculation that one candidate could win the statewide popular vote but lose most of the state’s delegates to his competitors, if they prove strong in individual districts.

Anuzis, who supports Romney, observes, “Santorum appears to be playing in four to six districts, Ron Paul is playing in one or two of them, and Romney is playing in six to ten.”

But despite the plans for a reduced delegation, Anuzis vows, “Michigan is going to submit 59 delegates.”

Arizona also will submit a full delegation. Under the original allotment, the Grand Canyon State was entitled to 58 delegates; now it is entitled to 29. Because the state party allocates all its delegates to whichever candidate wins a plurality statewide, however, its electoral math is significantly less complicated.

It is party regulars, not the candidates themselves, who choose the flesh-and-blood delegates in both states. In Michigan, precinct-level officials elect delegates to the county conventions, which elect delegates to the state convention, which selects the delegates to the national convention. In Arizona, the rank and file in legislative-district meetings and outlying areas elect delegates to the state convention, which selects the at-large delegates to the national convention. Congressional-district delegates, meanwhile, will be selected by caucuses in the districts.

Will the convention recognize these states’ full slates? It seems unlikely. Michigan was penalized for going early in 2008, and the convention held its ground. Even if the convention stands firm, however, the question remains how faithful the delegates will be to their pledged candidates if the convention winds up being contested. The delegates aren’t required to back their candidates to the death. The Michigan GOP binds its delegates for the first ballot only. The Arizona GOP doesn’t even go that far — it merely requires its delegates to make their “best effort” in support of the preferred candidate.

For the dreamers, then, there’s the possibility that these delegates could go rogue.

“They can vote for whomever they want,” admits Holly Hughes. “But I’ve never seen them not vote the way that they’re supposed to vote.”

“There’s no requirement to even vote for the candidate who won the primary, although our history is such that we do vote for the candidate on the first ballot,” adds Bruce Ash, national committeeman for Arizona.

Will delegates’ sense of probity scuttle any shenanigans? Ash, for instance, pledges to obey the ruling that he not serve as a delegate to the convention. As chairman of the RNC rules committee, Ash promises, “I will not sit on the floor; I will not be a delegate under any circumstances. As the person in charge of the rules committee I should think it’s up to me to uphold the rules personally.”

Whether his fellow delegates show such moral rectitude remains to be seen.

Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.

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