The 15% rule, again

If only Globe columnists could vote, the 15% rule at party conventions would be thrown into the rubbish bin.

First, Scot Lehigh called the 15% convention rule “not a system designed to serve voters well.”  Yesterday, Joan Vennochi wrote that this meager threshold is the equivalent of “the Massachusetts Democratic Party exercising power by taking power away from the people.”

As our friend George Will might say, “Well.” 

It is a particularly interesting view of democracy and power to suggest that the following is not democratic: organizing the grass-roots, attending to local concerns at meetings of citizens large and small all over the state, and asking your fellow citizens for political support in face to face encounters from Pittsfield to Provincetown.

That is democratic and our hybrid system of caucus, convention, and primary has served voters here extraordinarily well over a period of decades.

The 15% rule at both party conventions is not inherently undemocratic.  No one is barred from the ballot in Massachusetts, as Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuck are currently demonstrating.  But when someone chooses a party as a vehicle for nomination, it is strange to suggest the party should have no role in vetting candidates.

Parties are, by law and tradition, neither purely private nor public entities.  They are a hybrid of sorts.  So rules governing the process of nomination should be subject to open debate.

But parties should have some element of control over their nominations.  Choosing candidates for a party ballot is one very important way in which parties can maintain their identity as organizations with different views on the role of government and public policy.  Why have parties with different approaches to policy and governance if they cannot control their own nominations?

Further, there are all types of rules in our politics that impinge upon our democratic culture.

Is the 10,000 signature requirement to get on the ballot inherently undemocratic?  Why not zero?  Why shouldn’t any citizen be able to nominate herself and get on the ballot?

Why?  Because signatures on ballot papers provide some type of legitimacy threshold.

And there are others, built into the fabric of our institutions:

  • One official, the Governor, can veto a bill passed by a majority of both houses of the Legislature and it takes an extraordinary majority (2/3rds) to overturn that veto.  Mark that one anti democratic.
  • Two succeeding joint meetings of the legislature must pass on a constitutional amendment before it can be sent to voters for ratification.  Mark that as possibly anti democratic.
  • The legislature cannot take up the bill more than once in the same legislative session even if popular majorities support the bill.  Think of the death penalty bill in 1998.  Mark that as an opportunity ripe to avoid popular majorities.

Against that backdrop, the 15% requirement at party conventions is a mild threshold of legitimacy that allows parties to exercise a small amount of control over their nominations.

And putting forward a candidate for office is the single most important thing our parties are still allowed to do.

Both Globe columnists—who have probably forgotten more about our political history than most of us will ever know—ignore the role of parties at the local level.  Vennochi admits that “As for who is up or down in actual delegate-gathering, I confess, the multiweek caucusing process is one I have never tried to penetrate or understand.”

It might be worth a visit to local party organizations before, during, and after the caucus system to better understand these important civic and political groups.  I’ve referenced my home town of Sandwich and its active two-party organizations on a number of occasions because they nicely illustrate what vibrant parties can achieve at the local level.

The people who join these local organizations do so for a variety of reasons.

There are solidary benefits to belonging to a local party: camaraderie, conversation, friendship, and networking.  Sandwich’s parties, like their vibrant counterparts across the Commonwealth, are part of a larger constellation of organizations—churches, the American Legion, chambers of commerce, sports leagues, Masons, parent-teacher associations, and other groups—that make up civil society.

And they take their role seriously.  They sponsor debates, organize policy forums, sponsor college scholarships for high school seniors.

Strong local parties specifically encourage participation in politics, attention to public policy, and voting in elections.

They encourage engagement at the local level in our cities and towns.

They provide the connective tissue between citizens and government, public officials, and policymakers.

Part of the reason why local parties in Massachusetts are strong is they have a modicum of power: they get to choose who has the opportunity to run on their party’s statewide ballot.

No system of nomination is foolproof but Massachusetts has one that should be the model for others.   Remove the 15% and the caucus system and you remove a key reason for local party organizations to exist.

The result? Reduced power and influence of local citizens in both parties, a fraying of the grass-roots that keeps democratic life vibrant, and hollow organizations where strong local parties once stood.

That strikes me as far less democratic than the current system

About Peter Ubertaccio

Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of Joseph Martin Institute for Law & Society at Stonehill College in Easton and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & International Studies. His work focuses on political parties, marketing and institutions. He received his Ph.D. in Politics from Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Professor Ubertaccio and his family live on Cape Cod where he is on the Board of Directors of the OpenCape Corporation and the Sandwich Economic Initiative Corporation.
This entry was posted in Mass Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The 15% rule, again

  1. Pingback: More on Conventions, Caucuses and the Democratic Part: The 15% Rule | PROGRESSIVE ORGANIZING in Metrowest (South)

  2. John C. Berg says:

    Peter, I couldn’t agree with you more. Joyce Linehan had a heated response to Venocchi on her Facebook page yesterday; as I said there, the gaming of the convention this year may be the opposite of exclusionary: Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem, both unknown to the voting public, are trying to use the process to transform themselves alchemically into viable candidates. From what I’ve heard about the caucuses to date, they may well succeed.

    The Ward 17 Democratic Caucus is tonight; a bunch of my neighbors are organizing to go there for Berwick. I think I forgot to switch my registration in time, but I’m going anyway to watch the fun.

  3. Christopher says:

    Thank you so much for this column. Vennochi’s admission that she has not tried to penetrate or understand the process should disqualify her from further comment. I would add that any eligible voter is welcome to register as a Democrat by January 31st and any Democrat so registered is welcome to attend caucus, vote or even run for delegate. The process is anything but closed.

  4. John Riordan says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Professor Ubertaccio’s well reasoned response to the Globe articles. I was dumbstruck after reading Joan Vennochi’s column in particular. Her implication that 5000 local activists and elected officials constitue some kind of Democratic Party “inside baseball” scheme struck me as patently ludicrous. I hope Professor Ubertaccio will consider submitting his blog piece to the Globe as an Op Ed piece. It deserves widespread publication as a thoughtful counterpoint to the knee jerk cynicism of the Venoochi column.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>