Another campaign is about to kick off in earnest here in the Land of Endless Elections.
Republicans are already caucusing for their March convention. Democrats will do the same in February for their June gathering. Before long, the news pages will be filled with stories about this Democratic candidate or that scrambling to get the 15 percent convention vote needed to make the fall primary ballot. (Republicans aren’t flush enough with candidates to make that an issue this time around.)
In the absence of big intraparty differences, smaller issues will be magnified. As the Democratic convention approaches, delicate calculations may well be made about the governor’s race. Will it lessen Attorney General Martha Coakley’s chances of becoming the party’s gubernatorial nominee if former homeland-security official (and erstwhile Boston Globe columnist) Juliette Kayyem makes the Democratic primary ballot? Which candidate would be affected the most by having Dr. Don Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and bio-pharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone (also a doctor) on the Democratic ballot?
The hopefuls for various offices will court specific constituencies or power brokers — mayors, state legislators, unions — in search of help. Promises, pledges, and commitments will be made, sometimes compromising a candidate’s later latitude.
Then, a few weeks after the Democrats’ June 14 convention, the campaign will sink into a summer slumber, before coming to life again after Labor Day. Nominees will be picked on Sept. 9, and then, after a primary campaign that has gone on for a year or better, we’ll be off on a chaotic two-month sprint to Election Day.
It may be great for activists, interest groups, and ad men, but it’s not a system designed to serve voters well. Quite the contrary. So what would a more rational system look like? Let’s start with:
■ A recalibrated calendar
Massachusetts’ fall primary makes little sense — not, that is, if one thinks the goal should be an election process that works best for voters. Having had long months to contemplate the smaller differences between candidates of the same party, citizens are then left with two months or less to suss out and decide about the larger distinctions between the newly minted party nominees and whatever independent candidates make the ballot.
Incumbents, who generally go unchallenged, love the existing system because the late-starting general-election campaign makes it hard for opponents to mount a competitive challenge. That’s all the more true because a spirited primary fight often leaves those opponents broke and scrambling to raise funds for the campaign’s fall phase.
A more rational system would hold the primary in May or early June. Nominees decided, both parties would then have five months or so to make their case to the electorate. But a better system would also mean a:
■ Convention reinvention
The state party conventions have a certain usefulness: They give the party faithful a chance to watch the candidates at close range and bestow an endorsement, which voters can take as a cue (or a counterindicator). Those gatherings shouldn’t be life-or-death events, however. There’s no compelling reason to let a vote by convention delegates keep a candidate off the primary ballot.
One oft-cited rationale is that the 15 percent rule is necessary to eliminate frivolous or minor candidates. Nonsense. If an aspirant can collect the signatures required to make the ballot, he or she deserves to be on the ballot. In an era when campaigns are punctuated by frequent polls and regular fund-raising reports, to say nothing of endless punditry and analysis, voters are perfectly capable of deciding who’s viable and who’s not — and whether that matters in casting their vote.
So: Hold the conventions in early spring, as the Republicans usually do. Use them as auditions for the parties’ official endorsements. But don’t let convention delegates exercise a field-weeding function that properly belongs to primary voters. And finally:
■ Loosen the contribution limits
Since the mid-1990s, Massachusetts has restricted individual contributions to a candidate to $500 a year. Meant to lessen the influence of money, the cap has dramatically expanded the hours that must be devoted to fund-raising. It’s time to raise the individual limit to $1,000 or even $1,500. Fewer days spent courting contributions mean more days courting voters.
And from the date of the primary to the role of the conventions, actual voters are what the campaign process should be all about.