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February 24, 2014 / needhamgrassroots

More on Conventions, Caucuses and the Democratic Part: The 15% Rule

DNC 2012 - Day 3One of our biggest complaints about politics is that while “politics” touches every aspect of every person’s life (from drinking safe water to going to war)–the everyday citizen more often than not feels like “Politics” is something Apart from his or her daily life. And, even if a person understands the intimate connection between the stuff of our lived existence and how we run our government (“politics”)– how to engage with and influence that process is something completely opaque. Yes, good citizens turn out to vote — maybe even turn out for small local elections, not just the big presidential ones. But where else, besides the voting booth, do citizens bend the process of “politics”, hence “government,” hence the very stuff of our daily lives?

The seemingly arcane and definitely confusing processes of the Democratic caucuses and conventions at first seem to support that. And, yes, at it’s worst, Party politics can be the closed door system that keeps out innovation and change.

But if we break it down, the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s rules and systems are set up to allow everyday citizens a means to engage with the stuff of Politics. It all comes down to knowing that you can put your thumb on the scales, organizing (or being organized with) enough people, and knowing when to show up.

The caucuses — and the “15% rule” that give them their urgency every 4 years — make the case generally. (Read this very good blog on the 15% rule by Peter Ubertaccio over at Mass Politics Profs).  It’s up to us who “know the ropes”, to bring it to people specifically. And that’s called “grassroots organizing.”

MORE on this blog, on caucuses and conventions:


… parties should have some element of control over their nominations.  Choosing candidates for a party ballot is one very important way in which parties can maintain their identity as organizations with different views on the role of government and public policy.  Why have parties with different approaches to policy and governance if they cannot control their own nominations? …

the 15% requirement at party conventions is a mild threshold of legitimacy that allows parties to exercise a small amount of control over their nominations.

And putting forward a candidate for office is the single most important thing our parties are still allowed to do. …

It might be worth a visit to local party organizations before, during, and after the caucus system to better understand these important civic and political groups.  I’ve referenced my home town of Sandwich and its active two-party organizations on a number of occasions because they nicely illustrate what vibrant parties can achieve at the local level.

The people who join these local organizations do so for a variety of reasons.

There are solidary benefits to belonging to a local party: camaraderie, conversation, friendship, and networking.  Sandwich’s parties, like their vibrant counterparts across the Commonwealth, are part of a larger constellation of organizations—churches, the American Legion, chambers of commerce, sports leagues, Masons, parent-teacher associations, and other groups—that make up civil society.

And they take their role seriously.  They sponsor debates, organize policy forums, sponsor college scholarships for high school seniors.

Strong local parties specifically encourage participation in politics, attention to public policy, and voting in elections.

They encourage engagement at the local level in our cities and towns.

They provide the connective tissue between citizens and government, public officials, and policymakers.

Part of the reason why local parties in Massachusetts are strong is they have a modicum of power: they get to choose who has the opportunity to run on their party’s statewide ballot.

No system of nomination is foolproof but Massachusetts has one that should be the model for others.   Remove the 15% and the caucus system and you remove a key reason for local party organizations to exist.

The result? Reduced power and influence of local citizens in both parties, a fraying of the grass-roots that keeps democratic life vibrant, and hollow organizations where strong local parties once stood.

That strikes me as far less democratic than the current system


Leave a Comment
  1. harmonywho / Feb 24 2014 9:32 AM

    If you want a say in the Party (including who the Party sends to the general election), you need to be part of the Party. That doesn’t mean love it or leave it; it means, instead, “annoyed by it? change it.”

    I’m all for pushing the Party to the left and I’m all about complaining about institutional Dems who look more like George H W Bush than FDR. But that’s why I remain registered as a Democrat (not an Independent) and push for change within the party.

    I’d love to see more viable 3rd parties. But the Dem party DOES have mechanisms for me to change *IT*, so that I don’t HAVE to build a whole new infrastructure. I’m trying that first. Seems path of most likely success, even tho it means lots of organizing, engagement and a long game.

    But here’s where I think the Party needs to do better (and that’s on *us*– me, other involved people–, not some abstraction): more people SHOULD feel *EMPOWERED* by the avenues available to them *TO* influence the Party (including who it runs for general election)–but the truth is, most people do NOT understand this stuff. It’s not explained to them in an ongoing way. Trying to convince people every couple years how important conventions/caucuses are isn’t the way to get more people (ie, non-‘insider’ people) involved.

    This deficit in ongoing outreach and explanation and invitation leaves “the general public” or your everyday citizen with the feeling that this 15% and convention and caucus business is for political gamers and insiders and gatekeepers. We can do better at opening this up — and if we want the Party and its rules to have legitimacy then really we MUST.


  1. More on Caucuses: Voting, Running, Slates, Organizing | PROGRESSIVE ORGANIZING in Metrowest (South)

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