Home>Feature>A guide to how N.J. Democrats pick their national convention delegates

2016 Democratic National Convention. Photo by Kelly DeLay.

A guide to how N.J. Democrats pick their national convention delegates

Spoiler Alert: it’s extraordinarily complicated

By David Wildstein, February 24 2020 3:04 am

Since the possibility exists that no candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination will be the presumptive nominee before the June 2 New Jersey primary, here’s a Q&A to help you understand how Democrats will pick their delegates to the national convention in Milwaukee.

If that happens, it would be the first time the New Jersey will play a potentially decisive role in the presidential nomination process since 1984.  In 2016, Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination on the day before the New Jersey primary.

How many delegates does New Jersey have at the Democratic National Convention?

146.  That number dropped by one last December when Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched parties.

Does New Jersey have a binding primary?

Yes.  Delegates are required to vote for the candidate they’re committed to on the first ballot.

What is the threshold to win a delegate?

Delegate and Alternate slots are allocated to candidates who win at least 15% of the vote.

What are the delegate categories?

District Delegates (84 delegates), Automatic Party Leader and Elected Official (20 delegates), Pledged Party Leaders and Elected Officials – also known as PLEOs – (14 delegates), and At-Large (28 delegates).  There are also nine Alternate District delegates and two Alternate At-Large delegates.

How are District Delegates elected?

District Delegates run in the June 2 primary election on a slate approved by the individual presidential candidates.  They run in what we’ll call delegate districts.

What is a District Delegate district?

Democrats have drawn 20 District Delegate districts, which combine two entire legislative districts into one delegate district.

Does each District Delegate district have the same number of District Delegates?

Of course not.  That would make too much sense, and this is New Jersey, after all.

Each delegate district has between three and six delegates.  Eight of the 20 have alternates.  Different delegate districts have different gender requirements, assuming no gender non-binary delegates are elected.

How are the delegate counts calculated?

This is a little mind-numbing.  The formula gives equal 1/3 weight to (a) votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Phil Murphy in 2017; (b) total population, plus the average of votes cast for Barack Obama in 2012 and Clinton in 2016; and (c) Democratic Party registration as of 1/20/2020, plus the averages of Obama and Clinton votes in last two elections.  “This was done to ensure that no area of the state was disenfranchised due to population changes and that all democratic votes were considered equal,” the state party said.

Is there a gender balance for District Delegates?

Yes.  Of the 84 District Delegates, 42 are for women and 42 for men – assuming no gender non-binary delegates are elected.

Here’s the exact language in the rules: “Gender non-binary committee members shall not be counted as either a male or female, and the remainder of the delegation shall be equally divided between male gender (men) and female gender (women).”

How are the districts drawn?

Shocker: this is incredibly complicated.

What’s your favorite Delegate District?

Number 5, which runs from Hammonton to Old Bridge and includes the 8th and 12th legislative districts.  Hey, Patrick Murray, how’s that for compact communities of interest?

When is the deadline to file?

There are two deadlines.  Statement of candidacy must be filed by March 9, 2020, along with a pledge of support for a specific presidential candidate.  District Delegate petitions are separate from candidates for President and must be filed with the Division of Elections by 4 PM on March 30, 2020.

Why March 9?

After District Delegate statements of candidacy are filed, the Democratic State Committee will send the pledges of support to the appropriate presidential campaign on March 10.  Presidential candidates must certify the names of the candidates they select to run for District Delegate positions by 5 PM on March 13.

How may signatures are required on District Delegate petitions?

100.  The signatures need to be from eligible Democratic primary voters.

Do District Delegate candidates need to live in their delegate district?


I’m 17.  May I run for delegate?

Yes.  The delegate selection rules allow anyone who will turn 18 by November 3, 2020 to participate in the delegate selection process, even if they can’t vote in the primary election.

What if my first choice of presidential candidates doesn’t want me?

Presidential candidates have a right of refusal, so they ultimately decide who their delegate candidates will be.  Sometimes people who want to be delegates pick the candidate willing to take them.  In 2008, now-State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) wound up being a Barack Obama delegate when Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t offer her a delegate slot.

Say there are four delegate seats in a district and two presidential candidates each win two of them.  Which of the delegate candidates win?

We don’t know.  The New Jersey Globe has asked the Democratic State Committee how that works three times, and they can’t tell us.  The rules don’t specifically address that, and frankly, we think we stumped the state party on that one.

Can you lose a race for District Delegate and then run for a PLEO or At-Large slot?


What happens if a candidate doesn’t file enough delegates to run in the primary election?

A special post-primary caucus, aka a State Convention, will be held at 7 PM on Wednesday, June 10 to fill the vacant District Delegate seats.  Each New Jersey Democratic State Committee member will have one vote.  They’ll use paper ballots, which must be signed by the state committee members.  The filing deadline for vacant seats is 5 PM on June 5; presidential candidates must provide the names of their preferred candidates by 5 PM on June 8.  No response will be considered as an approval.

Are there any conspicuous mistakes in the delegate selection plan to fill vacant seats?

Here’s one.  New Jersey’s Vote-By-Mail law allows mail-in ballots postmarked by June 2 to be counted if they arrive at the Board of Elections by close of business on June 4.  If the presidential race in a delegate district is close, it’s seems unlikely that the Secretary of State will certify the results of the primary election by the June 5 deadline – and it’s difficult to imagine even meeting the June 13 deadlines.  Note to Deputy Attorney General George Cohen: please don’t leave the office early on June 5 and maybe keep your weekend open.

What are the worst-case scenarios?

Too many to list. Among them: a too-close-to-call District Delegate race winds up before a judge who doesn’t schedule a hearing until mid-July. It’s not impossible that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination will be decided by Stuart Minkowitz. 

Who are the automatic delegates?

Gov. Phil Murphy, U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, all ten House members from New Jersey, Democratic State Chairman John Currie, Democratic State Vice Chair Peg Schaffer, and Democratic National Committee members Tonio Burgos, John Graham, Marcia Marley, Bernadette McPherson and George Norcross.

Are former Governors and U.S. Senators automatic delegates?

No. The only exception would be if a former President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, Senate Democratic U.S. Senate leaders, House Minority Leaders or Democratic National Chairs lived in New Jersey.

When do PLEOs and At-Large Delegates get picked?

The Democratic State Committee will meet at 1 PM on Saturday, June 13 to elect 14 PLEO delegates, 28 At-Large delegates, and two Alternate At-Large delegates.

Those seeking consideration for those slots must file their Statement of Candidacy and Pledge of Support forms for a singular presidential candidate with the state party by 5 PM on June 5.

Can you run for more than one delegate slot?

Yes. The state committee will vote on PLEO first, followed by At-Large, and finally, Alternate At-Large.

Do the presidential candidates need to sign off?

Yes.  Democratic State Chairman John must submit the names of the individuals who signed Pledge of Support forms to the specific presidential candidate by 5 PM on June 5.  Each presidential candidate must respond to Currie by 5 PM on June 8 with their approved list of at least one name for every delegate slot they win.  Failure to respond will be considered as approval of the names.

Is there a big asterisk attached to the next part?

Do you really need to ask? The selection of PLEO and At-Large delegates must be done in order to make the full New Jersey delegation to the Democratic National Convention comply with the party’s Affirmative Action Plan and Outreach and Inclusion Program.

Are there any other big asterisks?

It’s hard to avoid noticing that the election of 44 PLEO, At-Large and Alternate At-Large delegates comes on June 13, just seventeen days before the deadline to pass the state budget. Of course, it’s unlikely that any legislators would consider trading their budget votes for a chance to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, right? #Carpenito.

How does that work?

Democrats have set goals for the final sum of delegates from New Jersey to match the percentage in the state’s Democratic electorate. Ideally, Democrats want at least 36 African Americans, 28 Hispanics, two Native Americans, 13 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 12 LGBTQ+ Americans, 15 people with disabilities, and 42 Youth delegates between the ages of 18 to 36.

The state party will use the Affirmative Action Plan when picking PLEO, At-Large and Alternate At-Large delegates after primary voters determine the 84 District Delegates in order to meet their goals.

What are PLEOs?

Party Leaders and Elected Officials.  There are 14 PLEO delegate slots allocated for New Jersey.

What’s the criteria for a PLEO delegate?

Democrats are eligible for a PLEO slot based on the following criteria: first, big city mayors and statewide elected officials, to be given equal consideration; and second, state legislative leaders, state legislators, and other state, county and local elected officials and party leaders.

What does that mean?

It’s hard to say.  Theoretically, it gives the mayors of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Elizabeth some degree of priority, along with Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.  It’s not immediately clear whether Democratic mayors of the next most-populous New Jersey municipalities – Edison, Woodbridge, Lakewood and Hamilton – are considered big city mayors.  Next in line could be mayors in Trenton, Camden, Passaic, Union City, East Orange and Bayonne.

Who were the PLEOs in 2016?

Just two mayors: Dana Redd of Camden and Mac Womack of North Brunswick.  Also: Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

Five legislators: Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald, former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and State Sen. Nellie Pou.

Three county chairs: LeRoy Jones (Essex), Louis Stellato (Bergen), and Arlene Quinones-Perez (Hunterdon).

Others: New Jersey CWA state director Hetty Rosenstein, congressional candidate Peter Jacob, Blue Jersey’s Rosie Efthim, and Sayreville councilman Steven Grillo.

Who is eligible to be an At-Large Delegate or Alternate At-Large Delegate?

Any Democrat eligible to vote by November 3 can be an At-Large Delegate or Alternate Delegate, as long as the final list of members of the New Jersey delegation reaches the Affirmative Action Plan numbers and appropriate gender balances?

Do the At-Large Delegates and Alternate At-Large Delegates need to be geographically balanced?

No.  There is nothing in the state Delegate Selection Plan that pertains to geography.  If a majority of the Democratic State Committee wants to screw over South Jersey, that’s their call.

Will Steve Sweeney and Craig Coughlin be delegates?

That’s up to the Democratic State Committee, which right now is controlled by allies of Gov. Phil Murphy. There’s nothing in the rules that says the top legislative leadership must be a PLEO delegate.  If Sweeney and Coughlin want a guarantee, they might need to run for District Delegate, on a slate with the winning presidential candidate in their districts.

If Phil Murphy and Sheila Oliver are delegates, who will be governor while they are in Milwaukee?

Next in the line of succession is Senate President Steve Sweeney, followed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.  If they also decide to go to Milwaukee, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is next in line – that could almost be like John O. Bennett III 2.0 – followed by Commissioner of Transportation Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.  Not in the line of succession: New Jersey Transit Chief Customer Experience Officer and Customer Advocate Stewart Mader.

Who chairs the New Jersey delegation?

That’s up to the delegates.  They will meet on June 20 to make that pick, along with four convention pages.

The pages must be evenly divided between men and women – “In the case of gender non-binary pages, they shall not be counted as either a male or female, and the remainder of the pages shall be equally divided” – and should use the Affirmative Action and Outreach and Inclusion guidelines.

How are the New Jersey Presidential Electors to serve in the Electoral College selected?

Democratic State Chairman John Currie pick them. Any registered Democrat may apply and must submit a resume, cover letter and two references from state committee members by 4 PM on September 15.  The nominations are made by the state party executive committee, who must submit final recommendations to Currie by October 1.  Currie has seven days to make his picks and must certify his selection to the Secretary of State by October 15.

So early voting for the electors will begin before those electors are picked?

Welcome to New Jersey!

New Jersey Globe - District Delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention
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