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Dispute over convention vote roils state GOP

Alleged violation of rules may have denied Baker opponent a primary challenge

Mark R. Fisher, left, and Charlie Baker.

Mark R. Fisher, left, and Charlie Baker.

Charlie Baker’s bid to become the Republican nominee for governor hit another snag Thursday night when the chair of the rules committee for last Saturday’s convention said his party did not appear to follow its own rules.

Steve Zykofsky, a longtime state committee member and chairman of the rules committee that developed the regulations for the GOP convention, said blank ballots should not have been counted in the final tally of votes that delegates cast to decide which candidates can run for governor.

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If those blank votes had been excluded, he said, Tea Party challenger Mark R. Fisher apparently would have qualified for the ballot, triggering a primary with Baker.

“I support Charlie Baker for governor 100 percent — 110 percent perhaps,” said Zykofsky. “But the fact of the matter is, as rules committee chairman and a member of the state committee, I have to be fair.”

The party’s executive director, Rob Cunningham, disagreed with Zykofsky’s interpretation, saying the rule he invoked “does not speak to the issue at hand.”

Zykofsky’s statement was the latest challenge to the vote that ostensibly solidified Baker as the party’s lone candidate for governor and standard-bearer for the November elections. By scheduling their convention early and putting just one gubernatorial candidate on the ballot, some Republicans were hoping to be well-prepared to make a strong, united push against the Democrats before November.

Now, instead of a primary election battle, they face a battle within the party over whether they will have a primary.

Fisher has said he intends to sue the party over the outcome of the convention vote, saying he was denied ballot access.

“It’s the only recourse the Mass. GOP has allowed us,” Fisher said. “They shut us down.”

Conservative and Tea Party activists who are already inclined to distrust their party leaders have publicly urged Fisher to fight.

“There’s no question that they’re on a mission to keep Fisher off the ballot,” said Richard Howell, a delegate from Wilbraham.

“What you’re looking at is the fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Howell added. “They don’t want Tea Party people. . . . They want that old country club progressive . . . half-Democrat-half-Republican that we’ve been running since the Bill Weld days.”

Fisher said that several elected Republicans have discouraged him from filing a lawsuit, for the good of the party.

To qualify for the ballot and trigger a primary election, Fisher needed to show he had the support of at least 15 percent of delegates.

What transpired in the tally room behind closed doors is disputed between Fisher and the GOP. But what happened in front of some 2,500 delegates inside the Agganis Arena on Saturday is easily reviewed on YouTube.

The video appears to show that Fisher had the raw votes to trigger a primary with Baker.

One by one, state committee members took to the microphones, reporting the votes cast by delegates in their districts — 376 votes for Fisher to Baker’s 2,095 — or 15.2 percent of the 2,471 votes. Ten delegates had voted “blank.”

But that raw number did not represent the official vote, state GOP chairman Kirsten Hughes said. The party’s vote-counters came up with a total of 2,533 votes later that night, after the convention emptied of activists. By their math, which included 64 blanks, Fisher fell just short of qualifying with 14.765 percent, Hughes said.

When she gave reporters the official vote tally, Hughes also asserted that blanks were not being counted.

“You can’t count blanks toward a bottom line,” said Hughes. “That’s not how it goes.”

Later, Hughes said she had misspoken and that the blanks had in fact, been counted.

Zykofsky, the rules committee chairman, said the convention’s Rule 17 states that only votes cast on behalf of nominated candidates can be counted toward the total. “The blank votes would not be counted in the final total,” he said.

But Cunningham said that Rule 17 is meant to address write-in candidates, not blank votes. Asked where the additional blank votes came from, he declined to provide details, but noted that officials from both campaigns were in the tally room where the vote was verified.

“That came out of independent, impartial tally room staff making the official vote in a controlled, overseen, and transparent environment in the back of the building,” Cunningham said.

He declined to provide a district-by-district tally of the votes to the Globe.

George Balko, a lawyer hired as parliamentarian for the party, said there was no provision for a recount for Fisher and that Fisher’s team failed to make its case on the specific challenges presented to individual delegates’ votes.

“They basically wanted to go over all the ballots again,” Balko said. “There is no provision in the party rules for a recount of that type.”

There was, however, a recount at the 2010 convention after state auditor candidate Kamal Jain nearly failed to garner 15 percent support. Jain’s campaign proved he had the votes to trigger a primary, which he later lost to Mary Z. Connaughton.

“There was absolutely no resistance whatsoever to doing the recount,” Jain recalled in an interview Thursday.

He called the standoff over election results last Saturday “unfortunate because it’s creating ill will. It’s creating bad feelings.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.
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