Time to change the rules (a little)

Shortly after arriving at the DCU Center on Saturday morning, I had an opportunity to talk to an undecided delegate about my candidate for Governor, Juliette Kayyem. He asked me, in all seriousness, “isn’t she too direct?” I told him what I thought, which is that we have all become so jaded about politics that we now view forthrightness as a liability. By the end of the day, only 12% of the delegates endorsed this politics of forthrightness and this candidate whose candor struck some of them as a potential liability. I am very disappointed. As I thought about that one conversation in Worcester though, I realized that there is an essential flaw in our present approach to nominating conventions. The most important question before the delegates isn’t ever on the ballot.

The 15% rule and its power surprised no one. As we attended caucuses throughout the Commonwealth, candidates and delegate candidates and caucus goers understood that any candidate who failed to get 15% support among elected delegates would not appear on the primary ballot. My point here is not to rail against the rule. In truth, I support it with modification. The caucus process ensures that no one can buy their way onto a ballot in Massachusetts. It means that, in our state, politicians need to do the legwork necessary to meet activists and persuade them to leave their homes in the dead of winter and head out to high schools and say who they think should lead. There’s a beauty in the ritual and a core purpose that is consistent with basic notions of democracy.

Still, elected delegates have a role to play once they get to the convention and the rules of the convention itself seem designed to prevent them from playing it. Here’s what I mean: no one other than the campaign staffs themselves had a strong understanding of what was likely to happen on the first (and only) ballot in the governor’s race. The Kayyem campaign believed and told people that she had 15% support in the hall. Joe Avellone’s campaign, contrary to the anecdotal evidence from caucuses, took the same position. Because no one really knew, delegates were not in a position to decide what the ballot should look like. Instead, campaigns rallied them for votes in their quest for the party’s endorsement.

That vote, however, was not really about that endorsement. The state party rules leave that decision to the second ballot (unless a candidate gets more than 50% on the first ballot). Instead, the first ballot vote at the convention was really about who would continue on — and the voters did not have enough information to make that decision. Said a little differently, a delegate might want Martha Coakley to be governor. At the same time, she might want Juliette Kayyem on the primary ballot for reasons of fairness or otherwise. If that delegate understood that: (1) Coakley was assured of a place on the second (nomination) ballot; and (2) Kayyem was in real jeopardy, she might choose to vote for Kayyem on the first ballot. Making that decision, however, requires information and there was a dearth of information on the floor at the DCU Center.

Many of us routinely sign nomination papers. We do so because we believe in having multiple voices heard in the primary process. With the right information, we might well make similar decisions at conventions. Instead, what happens is different. The campaigns work, as they must, to win. The campaigns all need to work to win and the candidates need to make the case as to why they should be governor. The problem is that their agenda is not the same as the substance of what the delegates must decide. The delegates aren’t choosing a governor; they are allocating space on the ballot for a primary.

In the end, what’s missing is candor. The prior system, where the second ballot could yield a ballot space, enabled delegates to exercise that responsibility in an informed manner. Consider the hypothetical delegate I described earlier. She could vote for Martha Coakley on the first ballot and then, after learning that Juliette Kayyem did not have 15%, she could vote for Kayyem on the second. So, too, throughout the hall delegates had an opportunity to think and vote meaningfully on the question they actually get to decide: the identity of the candidates on the ballot in September. Under the present system, they do not get to do that. And, in the end, it means that they all left Worcester having decided a question that was, quite literally, never on the ballot.

There’s some irony here. Steve Grossman and Martha Coakley are more reminiscent of Shannon O’Brien and Scott Harshbarger than of Deval Patrick. In Worcester, the convention marked a retrenchment in the party as we left with two very old school candidates heading to September (with, of course, the Don Berwick exception). At the same time, that decision exposed a significant problem with the rules. Convention delegates have real responsibility. The party should change the rules so that they can exercise that responsibility in an informed manner. The decision of which candidates continue on is simply too vital to be a coda to an essentially meaningless battle for the party’s convention endorsement.

About Josh Davis

Josh is an employment lawyer, law teacher, blogger and radio commentator.
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3 Responses to Time to change the rules (a little)

  1. Pingback: Headlines for Friday, June 20, 2014 » MASSterList

  2. Jim Walsh says:

    Delegates go to the convention to support a candidate or to make up his or her mind based on the speeches and other avenues of persuasion. They do not go there to do something as abstract as create a nice looking ballot in September. If you are going to be a candidate for Governor in a very competitive field, you’d better understand that. The biggest problem for me is that the primary is so close to the general election but, apparently, no one wants to mess up December’s holidays with politics and no one wants to hold the primary in Summer. For Dems this is a real disadvantage because our tendency is to be more willing to listen to multiple voices in our Party and thus have a more competitive primary…and the hard feelings that follow a hard fought battle. Frankly, I still resent the behavior of Warren Tolman in 2002, who took all the public money and spent it on scurrilous attacks on his fellow Dems. And the only reason he was on the ballot at all was because of the back room deals made on that atrociously long convention day. He wasn’t going to win but he could do enough damage to make Mitt Romney governor. He had a right to do it…but that doesn’t mean I have to like it or forget it.

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