Texplainer: What's the "Texas Two-Step" and Why is it Gone?

Delegate at Senate #15 Caucus at the Texas Democratic Party Convention in Houston, June 8, 2012.
Delegate at Senate #15 Caucus at the Texas Democratic Party Convention in Houston, June 8, 2012.

Hey, Texplainer: The Democratic Party is getting rid of the "Texas Two-Step" voting system. What does this mean for the 2016 presidential election?

While Democratic parties in the other 49 states and Washington, D.C., hold either a primary or a caucus to nominate a presidential candidate, Texas has both — or it at least did before last month, when the Democratic National Committee forced the state to choose one.

The hybrid system, called the "Texas Two-Step," was a unique way of apportioning delegates to the state's Democratic presidential nominating convention. Here’s how it worked: A primary election allocated 75 percent of Texas’ about 250 delegates based on state senate district voting results. The other “at-large” delegates, not tied to any district, were allocated at Democratic caucuses held across the state after the primary election. Any Texas Democrat could vote in the primary and a voter had to vote in the primary, or during the early voting period, to participate in the caucus.

In a Democratic primary election, voters used a secret ballot to select their presidential candidate. The caucus, though, was similar to a town hall meeting; supporters gathered to discuss party platforms and choose delegates for their candidates. It depended on getting a candidate’s supporters in the right place at the right time. The percentage of votes a candidate received at the caucus determined the percentage of at-large delegates allocated to that candidate. Here’s a simplified example: If 100 people showed up at a Burnet County caucus that had 10 delegates to allocate and 50 voted for Candidate A, 30 voted for Candidate B and 20 voted for Candidate C, then the candidates would walk away with 5 delegates, 3 delegates and 2 delegates, respectively. The more supporters who showed up for a certain candidate, the more delegates that candidate received. The total delegate count was the number a candidate received from the primary and from the caucus, but to be eligible for any delegates, candidates had to receive at least 15 percent of the vote.

But now the two-step system is gone. For the 2016 election, delegates will only be allocated via primary election. Three-quarters of delegates were already determined by the primary vote. The only change will be how the 25 percent of at-large delegates are divided. Instead of caucus votes, the number will be determined by the statewide vote. Why did the DNC make Texas change its system? "The Rules and Bylaws Committee review found that the complex two-step system that Texas previously followed had the potential to confuse voters," DNC spokeswoman Miryam Lipper said in a statement.

 

Now that the about 250 delegates will be allocated on the same day, Texas will be the largest prize of all the Super Tuesday Democratic primary elections on March 1.

The two-step had garnered complaints, especially after the 2008 election. Barack Obama’s campaign informed voters of the caucus’ importance, so they turned out to support him. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but because of the primary/caucus hybrid, Obama won more presidential delegates and claimed victory in Texas, leading some to call the system undemocratic. Additionally, the popularity of the 2008 election brought thousands of new voters to the caucuses and overwhelmed the voting process, strengthening the case against the Texas system. Some have also criticized the two-step for discriminating against the elderly, soldiers and others who cannot physically come to a caucus.

But Democratic Party leaders in Texas wanted to keep the two-step because they say it encourages voter engagement. When manpower determines who wins the caucus delegates, supporters have an incentive to turn out in large numbers. “Our argument is that we see a lot more participation and a lot more party building when people would actually come to the caucuses in person,” said former state Rep. Glen Maxey, who now works for the Texas Democratic Party.

The change wasn’t a complete surprise. Texas Democratic Party leaders say the system has been on thin ice for a while. The Texas system was grandfathered in and DNC officials had been telling the state for years it would have to choose either a primary or a caucus. Texas applied for a waiver for the 2008 and 2012 elections to keep the two-step. Maxey traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to advocate for the hybrid system in front of a DNC rules committee, but the request was denied. 

The two-step system has been in place since 1976, state party leaders said, when Democrats added a primary to the existing caucus. Before 2008, the process had not received much scrutiny because the primary races weren’t close and the party usually knew who the nominee would be before the primary election.

Texas Republicans tried to create their own two-tiered process, similar to the two-step, for the 2016 election, but its national committee rejected the proposal. Like the Democrats, the Republicans will allocate delegates based on primary voting results.

Bottom line: The average Democratic voter won’t notice a huge change without the two-step system. Caucuses will no longer determine the nominee and the Texas primary becomes more important nationwide, especially on Super Tuesday.

 

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