GOP Convention Voters: Present and Unaccounted For, Sir!

I’ve just gotten around to reading the Boston Globe’s editorial In GOP convention dispute, democracy draws a blank about the furor about whether or not Mark Fisher got the 15% of the vote needed at the Republican convention to assure him a ballot spot on the September primary.

I’m more confused than ever by the factual clarifications offered by the party.

As I argued yesterday in Did Mark Fisher Get His 15%? and the Globe recognized today, if the 64 blanks cast in the governor’s endorsement vote were not counted in the total of ballots cast, Tea Party candidate Fisher would have had the 15% needed to assure him a spot on the primary ballot. But the Massachusetts Republican Party did count the 64 blanks increasing the total number of ballots cast and resulting in Fisher falling just short of the 15%. Fisher is contemplating legal action and the furor continues.

The Globe editorial offers this explanation from a party leader:

As Rob Cunningham, executive director of the state Republican Party, explains, the actual percentage attributed to Fisher “depends on what your definition of ‘blank’ is.” According to the state party’s official tally, Charlie Baker — the clear favorite of the party establishment — received 2,095 votes, while Fisher, a Tea Party candidate, received 374 votes. Another 64 people voted for an option labeled “blank.” If those blanks aren’t counted, the total is 2,469, and Fisher’s share is 15.1 percent; if blanks are counted, the total is 2,533, and Fisher’s share is 14.8 percent.

On Saturday, blanks were counted as votes. Cunningham said explicit instructions were relayed to the Baker and Fisher campaigns, as well as to convention delegates, that “a blank vote is the equivalent of ‘present’ ” and would be counted as part of the overall tally.

Nowhere in the Convention Rules that were published and available to the delegates and public in advance of the convention, does it say anything about “a blank vote is the equivalent of present.” Even if it did Robert’s Rules doesn’t recognize such a thing as a “present” vote – it is effectively an abstention or blank and abstentions or blanks are not counted toward the total vote.

So let’s say that the campaigns and the delegates were given explicit instructions that a blank/present vote gets counted toward the total. What form did those instructions come in? Wouldn’t that require an amendment of the Convention rules? What body did that? The Rules say that rules can only be suspended by a 2/3 vote of the Convention.

There would have to have been several separate provisions of the rules amended.  First, Section 5 of the Rules states that “Any candidate who receives a majority vote of the Convention delegates present and voting in accordance with these Rules shall have the status of the endorsed candidate of the Massachusetts Republican Party for election at the ensuing state primary election.” As I explained yesterday the “present and voting” standard excludes blank ballots so that would have to be changed or a candidate could conceivably get the endorsement without blanks counted while a challenger would be excluded with blanks counted.

For the same reason the party would have had to amend Convention Rule 16 which reads: “The votes of a majority of the delegates present and voting must be obtained for endorsement by the Party.”

Rule 17 probably should have been amended too, it reads: “A vote cast for any ineligible candidate or for any candidate who was not nominated and seconded in accordance with these Rules, or for any candidate who is removed from further consideration in accordance with these Rules, shall not be considered as a vote cast by a delegate present and voting, and shall not be included in determining the whole number of votes cast for any purpose of these Rules.”

Also Rule 23 which reads: “No vote shall be reconsidered during the Convention except after the affirmative vote of two-thirds (2/3) of the delegates present and voting upon a motion for reconsideration of the vote.” If Rule 23 wasn’t amended a vote taken with blanks counted could be overturned by a 2/3 vote with blanks excluded.

Finally Rule 24 reads that “Following adoption of these Rules, Rule 23 and the first sentence of this Rule 24 shall not be amended or suspended. Any other Rule may be suspended only by two-thirds (2/3) vote of the Convention.” So when did the Convention vote to suspend Rules 5, 16, 17, and 23?

My post yesterday was tentative in asking if Fisher might have earned his place on the ballot; tentative because I had hoped the party would offer some plausible explanation of its rules and procedures. Instead I find the party’s explanations unconvincing.





About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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7 Responses to GOP Convention Voters: Present and Unaccounted For, Sir!

  1. Ed Lyons says:

    Professor Cunningham,


    The test of a system is not whether the mechanisms are understood by insiders, but by outsiders. If you don’t see the logic of the rules set by the MassGOP state committee, then the logic is not good enough.

  2. anthony says:


    The logic is indeed sound enough, it is just that Prof. Mo is focusing on the wrong portion of Roberts (perhaps in an effort to have some controversy and fodder surrounding the Republican party this cycle?)

    The “blanks” count because this vote was not a secret ballot, but a “roll call” vote, per Roberts. Because the State Committee people “poll” their delegates, they report back to the Chair the roll, which includes “present”. The relevant portion of Roberts, “The clerk calls the roll, and each member, as his name is called, rises and answers “yes” or “no,” or “present” if he does not wish to vote, and the clerk notes the answers in separate columns.”

    This is the same reason that delegates that were on the rolls but were absent were not counted as “blank” in regards to the final count–the “blanks” weren’t “blanks”, but instead “presents”.

    Now, blame the GOP for poor choice of words, but not for voter suppression.

  3. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    I am working from Sarah Corbin Robert, Henry M. Robert II, William J. Evans, eds., Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, 9th edition (Reading, MA: Perseus 1990).

    Anthony is correct that in sec. 44 “Voting Procedure” covering roll call votes “those answering present are tallied in a third column, to the far right.
    . . .
    the secretary gives the final number of those voting on each side, and the number answering present, to the chair, who announces the figures and declares the result.”

    However, a paragraph prior to that describing that present votes should be recorded in a separate column, Robert’s Rules provides: “Each member, as his name is called, responds in the affirmative or negative as shown above. If he does not wish to vote he answers present (or abstain).”

    I would read that as “present” is the equivalent of “abstain.”

    Section 43 “Bases for Determining a Voting Result” deals with the majority requirement and states a majority is “more than half of the votes cast by persons legally entitled to vote, excluding blanks or abstentions.” When a 2/3 vote is called for, that vote is also calculated excluding blanks and abstentions.

    Back to sec. 44, Right of Abstention: “Although it is the duty of every member who has an opinion on a question to express it by his vote, he can abstain, since he cannot be compelled to vote.”

    By the way, when a secret ballot is held, the tellers are to ignore blank ballots.

    It seems that you can call it a blank, an abstention, or present, the result is the same. Blanks, abstentions, and presents are excluded from the count.

    I thank Anthony for encouraging me to look more carefully at sec. 44 “Voting Procedure” though it does not alter my judgment of sec. 43 “Bases for Determining a Voting Result.”

    I would add though that I have not assailed anyone’s motives in my analysis of the convention votes and would hope Anthony would extend the same courtesy to me.

  4. anthony says:

    Hi Prof. Mo

    To start with, apologies if it came across as if you were insinuating voter suppression. While the narrative has certainly started to shift towards a concerted cover up by the Mass GOP in conjunction with Baker (as alluded to by the Globe editorial and more explicitly called out on places such as the comment section of Fisher’s Facebook page), I didn’t mean to suggest that was something you were guilty of.

    Now, while reading the current edition of Roberts, 11th, Section 45 firstly confirms that the proper applicable frame to use is indeed the roll call, as:

    “In large conventions, the roll is sometimes called of entire delegations rather than the individual members…In such cases, the chairman or spokesman of each delegation, as it is called in alphabetical or numerical order, responds by giving it’s vote… If any member of the assembly doubts the chairman’s announcement of the delegation’s vote, he may demand a poll of the delegation, in which case each delegate’s name is called by the secretary, and the delegation votes individually. When all delegates have voted, the secretary announces the totals for the delegation, which are recorded. The same rules concerning the custody and preservation of tally sheets and the authority of the voting body to order a recount that govern ballot votes apply to a roll-call vote”

    A bit verbose, but obvious that this most accurately describes the procedure of the Convention.

    Earlier in 45, the exact procedures for a roll call vote are laid out:

    “Each member, as his name is called, responds in the affirmative or negative as shown above. If he does not wish to vote, he answers present. If he is not ready to vote, but wishes to be called on again after the roll has been completely called, he answers pass.” later on in 45, “The secretary gives the final number of those opting on each side, and the number answering present, to the chair, who announces these figures and declares the result”. I would make the argument that, as Roberts goes out of it’s way to record the presents, and distinctly classifies them as such (rather than merely calling them abstentions), this shows that the present is significant (or to put it bluntly, if it is meant to be an abstention, why not just call it that?).

    With specific regards to the procedure of the GOP Convention, III.5, the Authority of the Convention, says “Endorsement: Any candidate who receives a majority vote of the Convention delegates present and voting in accordance with these Rules shall have the status of the endorsed candidate of the Massachusetts Republican Party for election at the ensuing state primary election, and shall have exclusive claim to such status for campaign and fundraising purposes.” If we believe that “presents” are “abstentions”, then according to Roberts they would not be counted towards determining the majority vote.

    6.1, Challenge by Non Endorsed Candidates, says ” Minimum Vote. Only candidates who receive 15% or greater of the Convention vote on any ballot for a particular office may challenge the Convention endorsement for that office in the state primary election, except as provided in 6.2 and 6.3.” It could be argued that this section is exempt from the “present and voting” criteria, as that phrase is conspicuously absent (when it was included above for the sole qualification of having an endorsement). That is a bit of a stretch, especially when Roberts says that the default, unless otherwise stated, is that all votes should be present and voting. However, it is also worth noting that III.11 expressly gives the party chair the authority over the method of voting, which could suggest that for any purpose which isn’t expressly dictated in the Convention rules, the Chair can change the criteria from the Roberts default of present and voting to the more strict present. In this case, they couldn’t change the method for party endorsement as that is called out by the Convention Rules, but could for the Challenge clause, as that is not specific regarding the method (and because “convention vote” is not defined elsewhere)

    Finally, even if all of this goes counter to Roberts and your interpretation is 100% accurate, Section 23 of Roberts talks about precedent and suggests that whatever decision the Mass GOP made prior regarding blanks carries authoritative weight towards resolving similar issues in the future. If they treated presents as votes in the past, even contrary to Roberts, than it should be counted “unless overturned on appeal by the assembly in an appeal, which will then create a new precedent.”

    Simply put, the Mass GOP could have definitely been better about their voting processes. For starters, putting the names of the super delegates on the ballot rather than requiring the local committee members to write them in would have cleared up a sizable amount of confusion. As would have relaying to the Body the voting procedure and announcing the vote before adjournment to give way to a motion to appeal the decision.

    In the end, these interpretations of these governing documents will be made and decided by people well above both yours and my pay grades.

    • Maurice T. Cunningham says:

      Anthony, you make a good case, though I think sec. 43 is on point in determining how votes are counted. We’ll have to agree to disagree and you are right, probably some judge will get to decide it finally. If I were the MAGOP I might hire you to argue the case! I don’t attribute anything nefarious to the state committee — they are overworked, these rules are complex and hard to apply even for two dedicated parliamentary zealots like the two of us. Thanks for the comments.

  5. Mark Fisher says:

    View the “smoking gun” :

    In any analysis of the votes in the roll call (Baker 2095; Fisher 376; Blank 10), I receive over 15% . The MA GOP has to stop the lie and announce me as a candidate in the Primary, or the courts will force it upon them. The MA GOP can choose the easy way or the hard way.

  6. Pingback: The Mass. GOP’s 15% Conundrum: Let’s Be “Reasonable” |

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