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15 percent rule? It’s democratic

Charlie Baker attended a preconvention rally in Hyde Park Tuesday.Barry Chin/Globe staff

Who’s paying attention to the governor’s race? Political junkies, party insiders, campaign staffers, crazy people. Some of the above will gather at the Agganis Arena tomorrow to do the things one does at a Republican Party convention: hobnob, kiss rings, snack, speechify, discuss the arcana of the party platform.

Oh, and vote — the stated purpose of the whole affair, and the reason the Massachusetts political world has been locked in a fierce debate over a bit of inside baseball: A rule, in each state party, that requires candidates to earn 15 percent of the delegate vote to earn a spot on the primary ballot this fall.

That means that once the non-junkies start paying attention — this means you! — the field might be substantially smaller. This weekend, Charlie Baker gets the chance to breeze past his Tea Party opponent, Mark Fisher. In June, the Democrats might see one or two of their five candidates knocked out in a single blow.


An insiders’ game? An affront to democracy?

That depends on the alternatives. After all, sometimes a practice that looks even-handed turns out to have the opposite effect.

I’ll admit that, at first glance, the 15 percent rule looks pretty undemocratic, a way to give insiders more sway than the voters at large. And Baker should beware of political cakewalks; in a lot of cases, a primary battle makes you a better candidate. But let’s stipulate that we need to set a threshold for serious candidacy, to keep from flooding the ballot with members of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party.

Some argue that candidates could prove their worth by collecting large enough numbers of signatures. That’s how the independent candidates this fall will do it, true. But it’s hardly proof of political viability. The last time someone asked you to sign a petition in front of the supermarket, did you ask a lot of deep questions? These days, signatures are often less a sign of grass-roots support than of a willingness to pay for signature collectors. (In his last race for comptroller of New York City, Eliot Spitzer was paying people $800 per day to take names.)


So let’s revisit the convention process. Some say 15 percent of the delegate vote is too high a threshold, especially with crowded fields. But for the Democrats, that 15-percent-or-out rule was a reaction to the chaotic convention of 2002, when five candidates for governor had the chance to compete in two rounds of balloting. They had campaigned fiercely to win delegates at caucuses, those small weekend gatherings in cities and towns that truly represent grass-roots activity. But they also had to court the nearly 2,000 extra delegates who were untethered to campaigns, but got votes largely because of party activism or political connections.

That year, I spent one evening in the kitchen of one ex officio delegate, an aide to then-Mayor Menino who happened to (shockingly) be an elected official of his ward committee. Every few minutes, a call came in from another desperate candidate. The delegate humored them all. But none of it mattered; he was going to vote the way Menino told him.

In the end, at the convention, deals were cut, suggestive statements were made, the voting process lasted 14 mind-numbing hours, and everyone made it onto the ballot anyway. “We came across as incompetent” and mired in backroom shenanigans, said John Walsh, an operative who went on to run Deval Patrick’s campaign in 2006.

By the time the 2006 convention came around, the party had changed its rules. It substantially cut the number of delegates overall. It limited the vote to a single ballot. And it effectively increased the importance of the caucuses, where regular people really can walk in off the street, make an informed pitch for a candidate of choice, and earn a ticket to the convention — and where a candidate without big money or establishment support can succeed via shoe leather and political skill.


“It’s not easy, but it is open and transparent enough,” said Walsh, who later spent a few years as state Democratic Party chairman. You can win “if you just read the rules and work really hard for a long time.”

That sounds pretty democratic to me.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.