Less than a week before Super Tuesday, the crowded Democratic primary field suddenly shrank by three, as Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar decided to give up the ghost before suffering what they expected to be miserable defeats just days later.
But their sudden departures raise a problem: with the states having already printed their ballots, many millions of Americans will still have a chance to vote for them.
So what happens if they do?
Where a candidate drops out after a state’s ballots were printed, they will still appear on them; voters will still be able to vote for them, and their votes will still be counted.
This is the case in California, where the ballot will include 20 candidates – not just Sanders, Biden and so on, but also long-gone candidates like Cory Booker and Andrew Yang. The question in that case becomes whether voters are aware the candidate has dropped out, or whether they’re still so devoted to them that they give them a valedictory vote regardless.
Things are different for people who’ve already voted for a dropout candidate by absentee ballot. In some states, a growing proportion of primary votes are cast by mail, meaning a great many may already have been sent in by the time Steyer and Buttigieg gave up the ghost.
Voters who’ve already mailed in ballots for the two men will not, in most states, be able to withdraw their vote or reallocate it to a different candidate, though that’s often because of the candidates’ timing.
In Minnesota, for instance, it is possible to change an absentee vote after it’s been cast – but only up to a week before polling day, too late for Buttigieg and Steyer voters to back somebody else.
However, in many states, voters who’ve received their absentee ballots but not mailed them in yet will be able to show up to polling stations and vote in person, even if their unposted ballot is marked for a candidate who’s dropped out.
One other thing to remember: because Buttigieg won pledged delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, votes cast for him earlier in the primary were, technically, not for nothing.
There is a difference between formally “withdrawing” from the race and “suspending” a campaign. If a candidate merely suspends, as Buttigieg has, they can retain some control of their pledged delegates, in theory allowing them to exert influence or act as kingmaker at a contested convention.
But even though this year’s Democratic convention is shaping up to be a tense affair, with talk of a floor fight growing louder, Buttigieg leaves the race with only 26 pledged delegates to his name – out of a total 3,979.
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