Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What Might a County Caucus Look Like?

Now that Middlesex County Register of Probate John Buonomo has stepped down from office in the face of theft charges, it is worth spending a little time discussing what might happen if Buonomo wins the primary, but then withdraws his name from the General Election ballot. I like to think that I have a little bit of knowledge about the process, having gone through it earlier in the year after Rachel Kaprielian resigned from her position as state representative to become our new Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

As the newspapers are reporting, it is too late for Buonomo to withdraw his name from the primary ballot. Since his is the only name that will appear and this race is so low-profile, it is not inconceivable that he will get more votes than any write-in challenger. WBUR this morning was reporting that should he win the primary, Buonomo would withdraw his name from the general election. Democrats throughout the county would then be able to fill the ballot line via a caucus, as provided for in Mass General Laws chapter 53, sections 49 and 14. Now, I am not a lawyer, and my eyes glaze over each time I try to scan through that text, so if I'm mistaken someone should correct me. As I understand it, each community in Middlesex would get a number of delegate seats to the caucus according to this formula from MGL chapter 53, section 14:

Each ward and town committee in the wards and towns compromising such a district within the limits of more than one municipality shall, as occasions arise, choose from its members delegates to fill vacancies as hereinbefore provided, in such manner as it may determine by its rules and regulations, to a number not exceeding one for each five hundred votes, or fraction thereof, cast in its ward or town for the candidate of the party for governor at the last state election, and shall forthwith notify the state secretary of the delegates so chosen.
So, each town and ward gets to select as many as 1 delegate for each 500 votes (rounded up) that Deval Patrick got in 2006 in that locality. My back-of-the-envelope math (using Deval votes from here) shows the breakdown thusly:

City/TownDeval VotesDelegatesCity/TownDeval VotesDelegates
Natick7,55016North Reading2,5736

Note, however, that the cities in the above list which have ward committees (starred in the above list) will have their delegates calculated by ward, not by the city total. The count listed there is a minimum because the rounding by ward may produce more delegates. For example, in a fictional city with 2 ward committees where Deval Patrick received 1020 votes, if the ward split was 710/310, the city would receive three delegates (two for ward 1, one for ward 2). If the split, however, was 510/510, the city would get four (two from each ward) thanks to the ward-based formula.

How are these delegates chosen and how do they come to their decision? On that, the law is generally silent, so the Democratic Party rules for caucuses apply. Now, not all provisions for those caucuses can be enforced -- particularly the requirement about giving proper notice. Here are the important points:
  • Anyone registered with the Democratic party as of Dec 31st, 2007 was eligible to serve as a delegate to the caucus, but only members of the Democratic Town Committee could vote on who would become a delegate
  • Delegates selected by committees must be gender balanced
  • The selection of delegates must be done within the jurisdiction of the Town/Ward
  • 10% of eligible delegates at the caucus constitutes a quorum
  • Ballotting at the caucus continues until one candidate gets 50% of the vote plus one
  • The caucus is subject to the open meeting law
Of course, given the scope of this potential caucus, more formalized rules for this specific process may be forthcoming from the Party.

Keep in mind that all this must happen between the time Buonomo withdraws from the ballot -- no sooner than the morning of September 17th, the day after the election -- and September 25th at 5PM, the Secretary of State's deadline to fill vacancies.

Now, when I think about what this means to me personally, as the chair of a Democratic Town Committee, I'm wondering exactly how many people I'd be able to convince to show up on one or two days notice to pick delegates for a caucus that would decide such a low-profile position. My guess is very few. We may be able to fill our slate of delegates, but barring anyone from Watertown running, I imagine that we won't send as many as we're allotted. My hunch is that this will be true in communities throughout the county.

So, what does this mean for the election? Well, in one sense, it's a safety valve in the case that Buonomo manages to win. In another way, it represents a strategic choice for activists. What should we be rooting for? Is it better to let Buonomo win and trigger the caucus, or is it better to spend energy trying to beat him with a write-in? Given the estimated number of delegates, Tom Concannon of Newton is poised to do well in any caucus. A Cambridge or Somerville candidate also has the potential to get a large number of votes. Just on a geographic basis, it seems to me that in the caucus process a candidate from inside 128 would have the advantage over someone from Lowell or Framingham, but it would all depend on what communities managed to pull delegates together in the short time available.

In all, I'm probably rooting for the caucus to happen, if only because I think it would be fascinating. Personally for me, it would mean more hassle, but if it leads to any sort of formalizing or reform of the caucus-to-fill-vacancies process, I'm in favor of it.