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We answer your burning election questions

Since we launched our feature “FAQ: How does the election system work?” we’ve received more than 2,000 e-mail inquiries. Some readers are still puzzling over how each party chooses its candidate. Here are some answers.

Questions, questions and more questions.

Since we launched our debut of our feature “FAQ: How does the election system work?” I’ve received more than 2,000 e-mail inquiries.

It appears some readers are still quite puzzled over how each political party chooses its candidate, and how he (or she) goes on to win the presidency.

Let’s face it: the process is a complex accumulation of constitutional amendments, laws, and party rules that started back in 1789.

But maybe some of us weren’t really paying attention in our civics classes, or never had the pleasure of one.

As one woman in Chicago wrote to me after reading our FAQ, “Tom, is this taught in school in the primary grades? If not, why?”

In their e-mails, some readers make the mistake of mingling the political parties’ nominating process with the general election.

The two are separate and clear thinking requires they be kept that way.

Delegates vs. electors
One reader in Long Beach, Calif., asked, “How do delegates and electors differ?”

The delegates are part of the process each party uses to choose its presidential nominee. The delegates have nothing to do with the electors or with the Electoral College.

Presidential contenders are awarded a certain number of delegates (not electors) based on how many votes they get in state primaries and caucuses.

Those delegates then vote at their party’s national convention, which in turn, nominates its candidate.

Then, a few months later on Nov. 4, voters cast ballots in the general election.

That's the day when each party runs its own slate of presidential electors (not delegates) in each state.

Let’s say you live in Arizona, which has ten electoral votes. You’ll vote for either the slate of ten Republican electors, the slate of ten Democratic electors, or the slate of some other party.

If the Democratic candidate (that is, the Democratic slate of electors) gets more votes than any other candidate, then all of Arizona’s electoral votes are awarded to the Democratic candidate.

Likewise, if the Republican gets more votes, then all of the state’s electoral votes are awarded to that candidate.

Reflecting some of the confusion between delegates and electors one reader asked, “If (Democratic) delegates from Michigan and Florida are not seated (at the Democratic convention), how will it affect the Electoral College?”

Answer: It won’t, because the delegates are a separate matter from the electors.

For now, let’s deal with some of questions readers have raised about the nominating process; tomorrow we’ll handle some questions on how the general election works.

What is a delegate?
One reader wanted to know, “what is a delegate?”

A delegate is a supporter of a presidential contender usually recruited by that presidential contender to be on the ballot for a primary. In a primary election, voters cast their ballots for a slate of delegates pledged to support Sen. Hillary Clinton, for example or Mike Huckabee.

Dozens of readers are also curious about the so-called “superdelegates” and their role in voting for the party’s nominee at the Democratic convention.

Under a system used by the Democrats for more than 20 years, superdelegates are Democratic governors, senators, members of the House of Representatives, members of the Democratic National Committee (elected by party activists in their states), and distinguished party leaders. This list includes former vice presidents Al Gore and Walter Mondale.

Superdelegates get a vote at the convention just as do the delegates elected in primaries. According to the NBC News Political Unit’s tally, as of Tuesday, Clinton had the backing of 257 superdelegates, while Obama had 184. That leaves 355 publicly uncommitted.

You can read more about the controversy over the superdelegates here and here.

We received several questions about the role of independent voters, or those people who choose not to register as Democrats, Republicans, or as members of some other party.

One reader wanted to know, “In a primary election, can an independent voter vote?”

The short answer: It depends on state law and on the Republican and Democratic party rules in your state.

In California, for example, independents or “decline to state,” as they are called there, could vote in the state’s March 5 Democratic presidential primary, but not in the Republican primary.

Another similar reader question: “I'm a registered independent. Why can I vote in the general election but not in the primaries? This seems extremely unconstitutional to me. Is Congress working on changing this totally unfair and antiquated system?”

First of all, the Constitution does not mention political parties at all. The Constitution leaves the regulation of elections mostly to the state governments.

Only on occasion has Congress intervened in election matters, particularly, who can run and who can vote in them.

The rationale for closed primaries
States that have closed primaries (ones that are not open to independents) justify them this way: primary elections are a method for members of a particular political party to choose who they want to be their presidential candidate. And if you're an independent, you're not singularly pledged to one party.

California did have an open primary system in which all voters could vote for any candidate, regardless of political affiliation. But the Supreme Court struck it down in 2000. The court said that the First Amendment protects the freedom of a political party to limit its membership to those who share its beliefs.

One reader wondered, “If you vote in the Democratic primary, can you vote for a Republican for president in the final election?” Yes, of course you can. The general election is open to any eligible voter, who can vote for any candidate.

A reader in Wichita, Kansas said, “This is my first time voting. If I registered as a member of a certain party, am I obligated to vote that way if my views have changed?”

The answer: No, you're not. Party affiliation does not mandate how you vote, and in any case, it’s a secret ballot.

So, for instance, if you’re a registered Republican who voted for Republican Mike Huckabee in the Florida primary, you can vote for the Libertarian presidential candidate or whoever you want on Nov. 4.

“I'm a registered Republican residing in Ohio,” said one reader. “Is it possible for me to vote for Obama if I register as a Democrat for the primary? If he wins, I have more time to decide and if Clinton wins, I can switch back and vote as a Republican in the general election. Failing that, can I vote for McCain even if I vote as a Democrat in the primary?”

According to the Ohio Secretary of State, in Ohio you do not declare your political party affiliation when you register to vote. “Under Ohio law, your political party affiliation is determined by the ballot you cast in a partisan primary election,” says the Ohio Secretary of State’s web site.

So you may vote in the primary of either party. “If you voted the primary ballot of a different political party in 2005 or 2006, you will complete a statement at your polling place confirming the change in your political party affiliation,” says state's web site.

And again, you can vote in the general election on Nov. 4 for whatever candidate you choose, no matter who you supported on your primary ballot.

Questioning the primary schedule
Some readers wondered about scheduling for primary elections and caucuses. “How does the schedule for states' primaries/caucuses get determined?” Another asked “Wouldn't it be more fair if all states held the primary on the same day?”

Yet another reader wondered, “Why are caucuses and primaries for the presidential nominations held on different dates across the country rather than on the same date like the general election? Some candidates drop out of the race long before a majority of the states have voted. Wouldn't the outcome be quite different?”

The decisions on when primaries are held are made by the state legislatures, the political party officials in each state, and by national political parties.

The primary system has evolved somewhat haphazardly over several decades. Opinions about its “fairness” vary.

Three senators have proposed that during each presidential election, a different region of the country — the West, Midwest, South, and East — take turns in hosting the first primaries and caucuses. But it isn't clear if the Constitution gives Congress the power to tell states when they can and can not hold primary elections.

A few readers were unhappy that they had no way of knowing who their candidate would eventually choose as his (or her) running mate when they voted in their primary.

“When you have a primary election, how come you don't know who the vice president is?” asked one. “Say the person I just voted for ends up picking someone (for their running mate) I don't care for. I might have not voted the way I did. When does the vice president come into the picture?”

A presidential nominee usually chooses his running mate a few days before the opening of the convention. In 2000, for instance, Al Gore announced his pick of Sen. Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate on Aug. 7, one week before the start of the Democratic convention.

We know we've only just scratched the surface, so keep those questions coming.

And check back tomorrow, when I'll answer your questions about everything that happens after the parties choose their presidential nominees.