A man phoned me last week and said, "I think you ought to comment on the suggestion that the president release his convention delegates."
"I plan to," I said. "What do you think I should say?"
"You should favor freeing delegates so that they can vote their conscience," he said. "The delegates should be free to nominate the best man instead of the man to whom they owe political allegiance."
"If delegates are going to be free to vote for anybody they choose," I said, "what was the point of spending so many millions of dollars to hold all those primaries?"
"Oh, that's the American way," he said. "We don't meet in the town square to settle issues, we elect representatives to act for us -- in Congress, at political conventions, even in the electoral college. In a lot of states, the balloting for presidential candidates is just a beauty contest. The delegates are chosen in other ways."
"I know," I said. "I've been going through a whole mass of material about the primary process in each of the 50 states, and it has me groggy. In Alaska, Iowa and several other states, delegates are chosen in what is called a multi-tiered caucus process.' In Arkansas, all delegates are chosen by elected party officials. In Florida, 68 percent of the delegates are chosen by caucuses held in the various congressional districts. In Georgia, the electors for a given candidate are different for each 'state house district.' In Illinois and other states, the voter has his choice between committed and uncommitted delegates. Almost every state has what are called 'add-on' delegates. Several states hold primary elections in which voters think they are picking a nominee but later discover that the central committee picks the delegates. It's very complicated, very confusing, and very misleading."
"But it's the American way, just like the electoral college," he said.
"If an open convention could pick anybody it wanted," I said , "who would be your choice?"
"Oh, Kennedy, by all means," he said.
"And if Kennedy were nominated and won the election, would you also like to see 'open voting' in the electoral college?" I asked.
"You mean do I think the electoral college should have the right to give the election to Reagan even if Kennedy wins the most votes?" he asked in disbelief. "No, I certainly do not. That would be intolerable. It would be unconstitutional."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that the Constitution does not forbid an elector to vote for somebody other than the candidate he publicly supported. aIn fact, I see nothing in the 12th Amendment to prevent an elector from voting for Howard Cosell.
So I just thanked the man for calling and we hung up. A few days later, I was trying to figure out how the Democrats could hold an "open" convention when 42 states require that delegates give at least their first vote to the candidate to whom they are committed. Seven other states demand even more of them.
Georgia requires delegates to stay with their candidate for two ballots unless he receives less than 35 percent of the votes cast on the first ballot. Nebraska has a similar requirement, but its delegates can be freed if they are released in writing by the candidate. Nevada and Oregon say nothing about 35 percent but also require delegates to hold fast for two ballots unless released in writing. Tennessee's delegates are "bound to their candidate for two ballots" period. West Virginia's rule binds delegates to their candidate for one ballot "or if their candidate withdraws," and apparently an oral release is as acceptable as one that's in writing. Wisconsin says a delegate is bound until he is released by the candidate or the candidate receives less than one-third of the convention vote. c
North Dakota's Democratic delegates are not bound in any way. They, too, can vote for Cosell, or even Harold Stassen if they wish.
As I pondered this hodgepodge, a woman who is active in Democratic politics here phoned and asked, "Have you given any thought to the suggestion that the Democrats hold an open convention?"
"Yes," I said. "I'm researching the question now. Do you favor the plan?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "It would be so much more representative of the will of the people if delegates were permitted to vote for whomever they honestly consider best. I think they'd pick Ted Kennedy."
"And how about the electors we will choose in November?" I asked. "Do you think they should be required to vote for the candidates the say they support, or should they, too, be free to vote their conscience?"
"The electoral college?" she said incredulously. "Oh, no, they would be guilty of a breach of faith if they didn't vote as they're pledged to vote. It's not the same thing, you know. Let me explain what the difference is."
"I know what the difference is," I said. "Thanks anyhow."