Monday, June 9, 2008

Dem Convention: Cracking down on no-shows

So, where were all of the delegates?

Yesterday, I noted that Senator John Kerry might have had a chance of getting the 85% he was hoping for if more of his committed supporters--specifically elected office-holders--had attended the convention and cast their votes in his favor. I was wrong. Looking more closely at the numbers, challenger Ed O'Reilly got 579 votes, which would have been good enough for more than 15% even if all 3,500 delegates had voted (he would have needed just 525). So O'Reilly was going to be on the ballot regardless of any missing delegates. But the fact that there were over 900 no-shows at the convention is troubling.

If the delegation from the Worcester and Middlesex district was any indication, those of us from the small towns took our responsibility to the party more seriously that Democrats in larger cities. All four of Lancaster's delegates were in attendance; all three of Westminster's delegates were there; all three of us from Sterling showed up (although we weren't perfect either; we had four seats allocated to us and only filled three of them at the caucus). In fact, Bolton seated four delegates even though they are only allocated three seats; because there were no-shows from other towns the Bolton alternate was seated. In contrast, just five of Fitchburg's 25 delegates attended; only one of Clinton's 13 delegates were in the arena, and amazingly, just one of Leominster's 28 delegates bothered to make the trip.

I would estimate that only 40% of the delegates allocated to the district were in attendance Saturday. Frankly, that's embarrassing. Though I don't have numbers from the other 39 districts, since a total of 74% of all of the delegates voted, our district must have been one of the worst attended of all. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that other delegations also had attendance problems. David S. Bernstein at The Phoenix reported that there was a paucity of delegates from Boston as well.)

Certainly some of the delegates who missed the convention had excellent reasons to do so. For instance, Representative Hank Naughton of Clinton was training with his Army Reserve unit. But I suspect that many other absentees missed the convention for less urgent reasons.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party should take steps to ensure that all conventions are well attended, including off-year elections such as this one. To increase participation, I propose two changes. First, the party should only hold conventions in even-numbered years. So called "issues conventions"--those in odd-numbered years--are sparsely attended and expensive. A bi-yearly convention schedule would make the one off-year convention more meaningful by increasing the number of issues to be discussed. It would save the delegates and the party money. The party could look at innovative ways to continue participation in odd-numbered years, such as holding a virtual convention or sponsoring and encouraging events at the district level.

The second change would encourage cities and towns to send delegates who are committed to attend the convention by penalizing those committees that do not fill their delegations. I propose that the party reduce the number of delegates allotted to a city or town by half the number of no-shows at the previous convention (rounded down).

For instance, the Clinton Democratic Town Committee is allotted 12 committee-level delegates (the 13th Clinton delegate is State Representative Naughton). Since 11 of the 12 delegates to the 2008 convention did not attend, the Clinton delegation to the 2010 convention would be reduced by 5 delegates (half of 11 is 5.5, rounded down to 5). Delegates would still be allocated on the basis of the town's turnout to the 2008 election as they are currently, but after the delegates are allocated the delegation would be reduced by the five delegate penalty.

Would that be harsh? Perhaps, but knowing that the delegation would be reduced in future years by no-shows would be a pretty strong incentive for city and town caucuses to elect delegates who will actually attend. If the local committees had been told before the caucuses in February that they would lose delegates to the 2010 convention--where all of the state offices will be up for nomination--if delegates missed Saturday's convention, how many more delegates would have attended? Would Democrats in Leominster send just one out of 24 committee-level delegates (the other four are either elected reps. or state committee members) if it meant losing 11 votes in 2010? No way.

In an effort to keep a set number of delegates in each delegation, cities and towns who field full slates would gain bonus delegates from those committees that are penalized. For instance, as a reward for filing a full slate Bolton, Lancaster, and Westminster would each gain a couple of the delegates Leominster gives back.

However it works out, the state party needs to find a way to make the off-year conventions as well-attended as the convention to nominate the slate of state-wide candidates.

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