The mystery that is Pennsylvania's delegate system

Greg Gross
  • Democratic voters will elect 71 delegates in the April 26 primary
  • Republicans will elect 54 delegates

Your vote for president in the upcoming Pennsylvania primary will not be as important as your vote for delegates to the Republican and Democratic conventions.

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The state's system of awarding delegates has often been described as confusing and has left some people scratching their heads as they attempt to figure it out.

"This system in Pennsylvania is a throwback to when it was decided by party bosses," said Franklin and Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna.

In the end, delegates play the largest role in the nomination process, leaving the presidential contest in Pennsylvania nothing more than a beauty contest, said Jon Price, a history and political science instructor at Penn State York.

Delegates: Seventy-one Republican and 210 Democratic delegates will be at stake when Pennsylvanians head to the polls on April 26, and a large portion — but not all — will be elected by the voters.

On the Republican side, 54 delegates — three from each of the state's 18 congressional districts — will be picked by voters, and they could play a major factor at the party's July convention in Cleveland.

Pa. primary in play this year

The remaining 17 GOP delegates from the state are tied to the candidate who carries Pennsylvania, but only in the first round of convention voting. After that, those delegates are free to vote for anyone they choose, Sweeney said.

Of those 17 delegates, three slots are preordained for high-level members of the state's Republican Party, and the remaining 14 will be decided at the party's summer meeting.

The elected delegates aren't required to say who they are backing for president ahead of the primary and can vote for any of the three candidates — businessman Donald Trump,  Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — at the convention, said Pennsylvania GOP spokeswoman Megan Sweeney.

Ethically, however, the delegates are bound to vote for the presidential candidate who wins their district, Price said.

But some delegate candidates tout their favorite for president in their races, Sweeney said.

Fifteen Republicans are vying to be one of three delegates in the 4th Congressional District, which includes York and Adams counties and parts of Cumberland and Dauphin counties.

Where they stand

Alex Shorb

: Alex Shorb, the head of the York GOP and one the delegate candidates, said he's not committed to a presidential candidate and would factor in the popular vote when voting at the convention.

"I will vote reflective of the 4th Congressional District," he said.

If the vote in the district is close, Shorb said he'll also consider which candidate won the state, how close the candidates are to securing the needed number of delegates and how well each candidate would do against the Democratic nominee in the November election.

With the GOP nomination expected to be decided at the convention, Shorb may go through the criteria a few times.

But Joe Sacco, another delegate candidate, said he already knows who he'd vote for at the convention: Trump.

"I'm not uncommitted. I'm for Trump," the Shrewsbury man said.

Sacco said he'd rather the voters know now who he wants to see as president rather than send someone who could end up picking their personal preference rather than the candidate who wins the district and the state.

"If people want to vote me in, that's fine. If they don't, that's fine, too," Sacco said.

State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township and a delegate candidate, said he'll also for the district winner in the first convention ballot.

Stan Saylor

"After that, the people put their trust in me to elect the best candidate for the November election," he said.

Democrats: On the Democratic side, voters know who each of the delegate candidates back when they head to the polls. Who each delegate candidate supports is listed beside his or her name on the ballot.

Across the Keystone State, voters will elect 127 delegates in the 18 congressional districts.

In the 4th Congressional District, voters will select an equal number of men and woman to make up its six-member delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Five delegate candidates are backing Clinton, while the remaining six are for Sanders.

As for the five candidates from York County, state Rep. Kevin Schrieber, D-York City; state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale; and York City Mayor Kim Bracey have committed to Clinton, while Frank Snyder of Carroll Township and Madeleine Nesbitt of Spring Garden Township and backing Sanders.

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

The Democrats also have superdelegates, one of whom is Gov. Tom Wolf, a native of Mount Wolf. In June, Wolf endorsed Clinton, who campaigned for the governor during his gubernatorial race in 2014.

What it all means: It's doubtful frontrunners Clinton and Trump will meet their party's respective thresholds of 2,383 and 1,237 delegates to secure nominations with a win in Pennsylvania.

Nonetheless, a primary win here for Clinton could mean the end of the road for Sanders. Clinton's lead in superdelegates — 469 to Sanders' 31 — also plays in her favor, and the lead could be too much for Sanders to overcome, Madonna said.

"That's his firewall," Madonna said. "She has a huge lead. How does he catch her? I just don't see a path forward for Sanders."

Should Sanders win Pennsylvania, it could give him momentum to carry states with later primaries and, possibly, gain the Democratic nomination.

"I think Bernie could win Pennsylvania," Price said.

Jon Price, a history and political science instructor at Penn State York.

If Kasich or Cruz eke out a win over Trump, it could be additional evidence that the Republican National Convention will be contested, leaving the nomination open to almost any of the candidates.

"I don't think it's inconceivable that Kasich could strike" in Pennsylvania, Price said.

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