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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Fixing the nominating process

Mid-stream may not be the right place for changing horses, but it’s a highly useful vantage point for considering future improvements to the political process.

Let’s first cast our gaze on the recent state Republican Party convention. On the floor two Saturdays back, conservative businessman Mark Fisher seemed to have corralled enough delegates to squeak onto the primary ballot. Then party officials, delegate counters, and campaign observers retreated to a closed room deep inside the Agganis Arena.

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When they emerged 90 minutes later, more blank votes had been added, which meant Fisher was now a handful of votes shy of the necessary 15 percent. It’s certainly possible that the new count merely corrected tallies reported from the floor. Still, a suspicious Fisher is suing — and given the circumstances, it’s hard to blame him. Now the GOP has a mess on its hands, one that may drag on for months. And all because of the counterproductive process that lets convention delegates control primary-ballot access.

Next, consider the Democrats, who will convene June 13-14. The consensus is that Treasurer Steve Grossman, the party’s former chairman and a prolific political contributor and fund-raiser, is well-positioned to win the confab’s endorsement for governor. Certainly he’s calling in every chit he has in pursuit of that goal.

That puts real pressure on Attorney General Martha Coakley. Coakley is the Democratic frontrunner, but if she finishes too far behind Grossman, lingering questions about her skill as a candidate will come flooding back. Thus she has to push hard for a strong second-place finish.

And where does that leave the party’s other gubernatorial hopefuls? Certainly they’ve been hard at it. According to his campaign, biopharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone has visited more than 130 communities. Former homeland security official (and erstwhile Globe columnist) Juliette Kayyem has produced a profusion of policy plans and, recently, has been on an extended tour of the state’s Gateway Cities. Former federal Medicare and Medicaid administrator Don Berwick has also traveled the state widely, adding an unflinching liberal voice to the debate.

Each brings interesting credentials and a serious perspective. But given the estimated delegate strength of Grossman and Coakley, and their political imperatives, it’s extremely unlikely that all three will clear the 15 percent threshold. Indeed, it’s very possible that two of the trio will fall short.

Political theorists and party tacticians justify that rule by saying it encourages grass-roots organization and ensures that candidates travel the state to meet party activists. Perhaps, but that ignores the considerable downsides. What one often sees as well are desperate candidates courting mayors, legislators, and other delegate-wielding power brokers. And, of course, party constituency groups using the process to leverage commitments from the candidates on matters that would sometimes make for dubious public policy.

So it’s time to ask this question: Isn’t there a better way?

Of course there is. Both parties should give up their field-winnowing function and simply endorse a favorite for each office. Both should hold their conventions in early spring. Primary day should be moved to May or June.

Under such a scheme, candidates would still travel the state to build support, though perhaps with a broader public pitch. Indeed, with the primaries closer to the conventions, there would be greater incentive to make a splash there.

By late spring, the conventions would have endorsed their favorites, primary voters would have selected the nominees, and the candidates could devote four or five months, rather than just two, to the general-election campaign.

Even some who support the 15 percent rule think we should move to a spring primary. In that camp, count former state Democratic Party chairmen Phil Johnston and John Walsh, who say it would give candidates more time to heal intra-party wounds and raise funds. Most importantly, it would give voters more time to evaluate their choices.

No, we can’t change the process this year. But today’s mid-stream perspective argues for doing so before we cross the next campaign river.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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