Primer on Massachusetts Democratic Party Politics

by Jesse Gordon,, (617) 320-6989

Caucuses and Conventions

Every year, from late January to mid-February, there are Democratic caucuses in every city and town in Massachusetts. The purpose of the caucuses is to elect delegates to the state convention, which is held in May or June. The purpose of the convention varies by year:

It is very easy to get elected as delegate to all convention except the nominating convention. In gubernatorial years, delegate seats are highly competitive. That's because the delegates decide who gets the party's nomination for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, and all statewide offices. The delegates also decide who gets to be on the Democratic primary ballot, and who gets kicked off. So in gubernatorial years, the convention is the real thing. In all other years, it's mostly a big annual get-together for activists and party regulars.

Getting elected as delegate to the annual state convention is an open process. The process is described in the state party by-laws, at and in the convention rules (which are not public until just before the convention each year). The basics and the politics are described here.

The Caucuses

Caucuses are run annually by every Democratic Town Committee and every Democratic Ward Committee in Massachusetts. Delegates are elected by vote of the people present at the caucus. Delegate seats are open to anyone attending the caucus, and if you can't attend, you can ask someone who will attend to nominate you in absentia. The only requirement for being a delegate (and for voting for delegate) is that you are registered as a Democrat at least 40 days prior to the caucus, and that you are registered in the ward or town on the day of the caucus.

Each town and ward are assigned a number of delegates and alternates to elect to attend the state convention. The number of delegates is determined by the number of registered Democrats in the town or ward, plus some other factors. The result is that a typical town or ward elects between 5 and 15 delegates, plus a few alternates. The delegate seats are gender-balanced (half are assigned to men; half to women; and if there are an odd number, then one seat is assigned as non-gendered).

The chair of the town committee or ward committee decides when and where the caucus will be held, which is published as the caucuses get close on the website. The committee chair runs the caucus and is automatically granted a delegate seat (an ex-oficio seat, that's called). You can find your caucus' chair at -- some have email addresses and most have phone numbers. Calling your chair to introduce yourself is appropriate -- they are elected party officials and it's one of their responsibilities to inform potential new attendees about the caucus. In non-gubernatorial years, most Ward Committees caucus as a City Committee (i.e., all in one place) and do not publicize the ward caucuses separately.

The caucus itself is just a meeting run by formal rules of order, with nominations and seconds, then votes where the chair counts the results. In the off-years, most people who attend get elected, if they want to attend the convention, and often people are recruited to fill the unfilled seats. I usually come with a list of progressives whom I can nominate in absentia, including for the alternate seats.

The voting process itself is in four parts: one for each gender, for the delegate seats then for the alternate seats (with an extra vote thrown in if there's an unassigned gender seat). Women delegate seats are nominated first, with each name written on a big board. Then when the nominations are closed, you vote for the whole set of delegates by writing your choices on a slip of paper, with the number of names up to the number of available seats. The chair then counts and writes the number of votes for each candidate on the big board. Every vote counts the same, so bulleting helps ("bulleting" means voting for just one candidate, or for fewer than the allowed number). Then the process is repeated for men, then for alternates.

After the voting, the town secretary or ward secretary has some paperwork for the elected delegates and alternates to sign, mostly with contact information. You can pay your attendance fee at that time, or you can pay later (if you pay much later, there's an extra fee). If you can't afford the fee, there are mechanisms to get out of payment.

A few weeks after the caucuses, there are add-on seats in the categories of: affirmative action; disabled; and youth (age 35 and under); but not GLBT nor the other DSC add-on categories. If you ran for delegate, you are more likely to get an add-on seat. But there's also a geographical balance component too, so there are no guarantees. You can get the add-on delegate application form at the caucus or on

The formal rules of order require that the doors are locked at the exact time of the start of the caucus. It's a very dramatic and silly ritual, but it means that you MUST get there on time or you cannot vote. You can still run for delegate if you get there late, because you can ask someone else present to nominate you in absentia (which is weird because you're officially absent but physically present).

Gubernatorial Caucuses

In the nominating convention years, it's a very different story. While the process and the formal rules of order are identical, there are many more people who want to be delegates than there are delegate seats. Generally, all of the gubernatorial candidates will try to send as many of their supporters as possible to every caucus. They will also send organizers who don't necessarily reside in the ward or town (and hence canít vote) but can keep track of what's going on.

Many of the people attending these caucus will not know who are the other supporters for their candidate. The job for the organizer is to let all of them know each other's names, so they can all vote for each other. That's called a "slate." Slates are how you win a delegate seat in nominating years. You bring enough people to fill all the seats, and then you bring as many more people as possible, to vote for that list.

A well-organized gubernatorial campaign will have an organizer at every caucus. They will know in advance who their supporters are, will decide in advance who will run for delegate seats, and will print up delegate lists in advance to hand out to all their supporters. That's the ideal; the reality is that it's a very crowded and noisy and confusing event, and hence never ideal. The organizer will also try to keep the other candidates' organizers from talking to their supporters, since newcomers to caucuses might be tricked into voting wrong.

The chair is officially neutral about supporting any candidate (my chair in 2002 shocked me by arriving at the convention wearing a Tolman T-shirt, when I assumed all along that he was an O'Brien supporter). The chair usually invites one organizer from each gubernatorial campaign to observe the vote-counting (I observed as the Reich organizer at my caucus in 2002), so there's an assurance from all sides against hanky-panky.

Some people might be attending in support of candidates for office other than governor (like for treasurer) and are legitimately neutral on their gubernatorial choice. Other than that, people in attendance are not likely to be undecided in their gubernatorial choice -- the caucus is a place to bring committed people, not to persuade people to your side.

Because the delegates in gubernatorial caucuses are normally run as slates, a normal outcome is that one candidate wins all the seats in each ward or town. If you have good "slate discipline" (i.e., everyone votes for each member on the slate) and enough people to beat the other slates, you'll win all the seats. Plenty of wards and towns do end up with some delegates for several different gubernatorial candidates, since slate discipline is hard to enforce and often there aren't enough people to fill a complete list of delegates.

A gubernatorial caucus is raucous fun. But because it's raucous, it's hard to follow what's going on. The best strategy is to attend an off-year caucus as a dry run, so you can learn the rules and procedures, then enjoy the fun in the gubernatorial year. Since it's already too late for the 2006 caucus if you have not done a dry run already, the best you can do is talk to your fellow gubernatorial supporters who did attend their 2005 caucus.

The Convention

For off-years, the convention is an annual gathering mostly for social purposes. There are some votes, on the platform and on amendments, but rarely are the votes contested. There's a separate section below on nominating conventions, so here I'll just describe issue conventions and the formalities of conventions in general.

Technically, the convention starts the evening before (Friday, May 13 2005, for this year's convention). There's a formal gaveling of the convention to order on the morning of Saturday, May 14 2005. The evening before, there are lots of parties that delegates attend. Those parties are the best place to gather petition signatures, hand out literature, and to persuade delegates to support your cause in a floor vote. The convention gavel is at 9 AM, so delegates arrive earlier than that, and hence gathering signatures on convention morning is almost too late.

The Convention for 2005 takes place at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell. There's a large parking garage about 100 yards from the main entrance. On convention day, the 100-yard grassy strip will be filled with people looking for delegate signatures, with nascent gubernatorial campaigns trying to show their level of support, and with lobbyists of all sorts pushing their issues.

The "Convention floor" is open only to delegates. That's where voting takes place, so anyone on the floor is assumed to be able to vote. Usually votes are taken by voice-vote, and the chair just listens for which side is louder, and announces the winner. If there is a tightly contested vote, the chair could call for a count by State Senate District (SSD). Delegates are seated (in theory) by SSD, although in practice delegates mingle everywhere since there are rarely contested votes.

The "podium" is where the party officers sit. It's raised high above the floor and looks very imposing indeed. The party chair (Phil Johnston) has a microphone on the podium and runs the show. The party general counsel (Jim Roosevelt) sits at a table near the podium to handle incoming floor vote petitions and other legal details.

Many groups rent tables in the halls surrounding the convention floor. Non-delegates are allowed there, with "hall passes" instead of the delegates' "floor passes". Delegates can come to the halls to read literature, sign petitions, go to the bathroom, and so on. Many groups also rent tables outside the convention hall, for the same purposes (except going to the bathroom).

When a floor vote gets called (i.e., when Jim Roosevelt approves the 500-signature petitions), there's an opportunity for supporters and opponents to make brief speeches. You are tightly limited on time, and this is your big chance to persuade the 3,000 delegates, and they will all be listening. After the last speech, the chair asks for Yea's and Nay's, and announces the results.

The chair terminates the speeches when there are no more opponents who want to speak, so it's a good idea to have some opponents lined up (i.e., find people who oppose your vote on several different grounds and ask them to speak. That allows you to line up several different speakers in favor of your vote. For the Mass Scorecard vote, we lined up three speakers. One more delegate asked to speak in favor, but mostly spoke against the Mass Scorecard. The chair wanted to close the speeches, but we persuaded him that the final speaker was actually against the Scorecard, so we got one more speech (mine). It would have been better to line up opponents than to trust to chance.

The closest vote I've witnessed in my three off-year conventions was for the Mass Scorecard, which required two voice-votes before the chair declared us the winner, 60% to 40%. Every other vote in issues conventions and platform conventions have been by acclamation, with only a few scattered voices voting against the overwhelming majority. I've only witnessed one vote lose -- by motorcycle enthusiasts who wanted a platform plank calling for repealing the helmet law -- which lost by acclamation.

That means, if you want to push an issue at a platform convention or an issues convention, the real hurdle is to get it to a floor vote. You need 500 delegate signatures to call for a floor vote on any issue, which is a substantial percentage of the approximately 3,000 delegates. Once you get to a floor vote, you have a good chance of winning, if your issue is something the delegates approve of. The convention delegates -- especially in off-years -- have a reputation for being more progressive than the party establishment. There's a separate primer on making platform amendments, so I'll move on to other convention details.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the 2005 convention (and any convention in the year leading up to a gubernatorial election) is that the statewide candidates use the convention as a "bully pulpit." This year, Deval Patrick and Tom Reilly (and other statewide candidates too) will likely try to get as many supporters to the convention as possible, as a showcase of their early organizational strength.

The Nominating Convention

As with the gubernatorial caucuses, the nominating convention is legally identical to the other conventions, but really is a very different story. Security is tighter; press is everywhere; the votes are contested; the outcome is unpredictable; and people care much more about the outcome.

There are two purposes to a nominating convention:

1) To determine the party nominee; and

2) To determine which other candidates may appear on the Democratic primary ballot.

Both of those purposes apply to all of the statewide offices but people are most interested in the gubernatorial outcome. The statewide offices are:

Hence there are at least six votes (one for each office) and usually several more than six votes. The votes go in order of importance (governor first)*.

The first and most important vote is for governor. Each candidate makes a 15-minute speech* and then a vote occurs. In the governor's case, the speech is mostly targeted at the press because the delegates have mostly decided in advance who they are voting for. In the case of the other offices, this speech is often the first time the delegates have heard the candidate make a political speech, so it is targeted at them.

To get on the primary ballot for governor, a candidate must get 15%* of the delegates' votes. That can occur on EITHER* the first convention ballot OR the second convention ballot. That causes lots of "backroom deal-making" -- in 2002, Warren Tolman's supporters all voted for Steve Grossman on the first ballot, and Grossman's supporters all voted for Tolman on the second ballot. The "15% rule" really only matters when there are more than 3 or 4 candidates for one office. In 2002, only one candidate (Sarah Holden Cannon, a strong progressive for lieutenant governor) was denied a spot on the primary ballot.

To get the party's nomination, a candidate needs to get 50% of the delegates' votes. After the second ballot (when the primary ballot is determined), the candidate who received the fewest votes is removed from the choices, and the ballots continue until one candidate gets over 50% or there are only two candidates left. In 2002, Robert Reich withdrew after the first ballot (when he got his required 15%) and Shannon O'Brien won the party nomination on the third ballot.

The party's nomination means, basically, that the nominee can say "I'm the party's nominee." Since the other candidates still appear on the primary ballot, it doesn't matter so much (and in an independent-minded state like Massachusetts, it may be a negative to be the party's choice!).

The same rules apply to the other five statewide offices. In 2002, the voting for down-ballot offices went on until about 11 PM.* Delegates were very tired by the end,* since they had been there since 8 AM. The length of that day of voting resulted in the Dukakis-McGovern Commission proposing lots of changes to the convention process, which resulted in all of the asterisks in the text above, which are explained in a separate primer.

I'll describe the nitty-gritty of some of the convention voting rules, and then we're done. Delegates sit grouped by State Senate District (SSD). There are big signs with the abbreviations of your SSD placed around the convention floor (like "2SM" for the Second Middlesex and Suffolk district). Unlike at issues conventions, the SSD seating really does matter, because the voting really is contested.

Each SSD has a person assigned to take the vote, and then a "runner" assigned to bring the results to the podium (there are no electronics at these conventions!). The vote is public. Each delegate's name is called, and that delegate shouts out who they are voting for. The vote is tallied, run up to the podium, and posted on a big board (ok, maybe that's electronic). Each vote takes about 15 to 30 minutes.

Alternate delegates may not enter the voting floor -- there is a special separate area for them. When a delegate leaves the convention, they sign out (or at the gavel at the beginning of the day, any delegates who don't sign in) and yield their seat to an alternate.* The SSD clerk notifies the "switch captain" who then notifies the next-in-line alternate to claim their seat. Hence alternates should stick around all day, because as delegates leave, they get to participate as full delegates.

Campaign staffers can get onto the convention floor by using a rotating "floor pass." Each campaign is given a handful of them, so staffers can run back-and-forth to the campaign booth (which is outside the convention floor area). The same applies to lobbying groups -- for example, CPPAX often rents a booth -- they get a few floor passes and several hall passes. Press get some special access passes too. Later in the day, security tends to get more lax, and anyone who wants to see the dying-out action can go onto the floor and take a look. All of the above rules technically apply to off-year elections too, but the more lax late-in-the-day rules pretty much go on all day.

There's one other special activity for campaign staffers, called the "Gold Rush." Very early in the morning on Saturday, before the delegates can enter the convention floor, staffers are allowed in, to hang their candidate's campaign signs on the walls surrounding the convention floor. It's called the Gold Rush because the good spots are golden -- like, where the TV cameras point, and where all the delegates cam see. Hyped-up campaign staffers (usually young people with good climbing skills) compete for the highest-up-on-the-wall spots before their competitors get them. Bring your duct tape!

* The rules are described as they occurred for the 2002 convention. Rules marked with as asterisk are proposed to be changed for the 2006 convention. Details on those changes, as proposed by the Dukakis-McGovern Commission and the Barrios-Glodis Commission, appear on the "Committees and Commissions" primer page.

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All opinions expressed above are those of Jesse Gordon and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the DSC or any DTC members. Jesse has expressed the rules and procedures to the best of his knowledge; if you find any factual errors, please contact Jesse at, (617) 320-6989, or write to 1770 Mass Ave #630, Cambridge MA 02140.