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1.25.2002 00:05

Democracy at work in Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE

MASSACHUSETTS is about to have a well-hidden exercise in democracy -- in which you can participate and make it less well-hidden. On Feb. 2, the Democratic Party will hold caucuses across the state, including 11 in Cambridge, at which delegates to the May 31 convention will be selected. Those delegates will then choose who appears on the Democratic primary ballot on Sept. 17 for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general.

The people who show up at the Feb. 2 caucus -- sometimes only dozens -- will decide who Cambridge supports at the convention, and hence Feb. 2 is a chance to have a real voice in real democracy. This process traditionally favors "party insiders" who know about the caucus and who attend with their friends to vote for them as delegates. But knowing the rules -- outlined below -- lets anyone to attend, and could make the process more "grass roots."

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To be eligible to attend the Democratic caucus, you must be a registered Democrat by Feb. 1, 2002. Unlike in the primary election, where you can change your registration on the spot and vote in whichever primary you prefer, you must register in advance for the caucus.

There is one caucus held in each of Cambridge's 11 wards. Each caucus is usually held at a public building in the ward -- the locations were decided by last Friday, and the list as of press time appears at the end of this article. For wards where the location isn't yet decided, you can call the contact person for that ward to find it out later. The doors at the caucus are traditionally locked at the appointed hour, so you must arrive on time, or better yet, arrive early to get yourself a seat and a good vantage point.

This is how the caucus elects delegates: Half of the delegates are set aside for men and half for women. Once the nomination process is open, anyone can nominate themselves or someone else to be a delegate. There is no limit on the number of people who can be nominated. Once the nominations are over, every registered Democrat attending the caucus will get a ballot. You can vote for as many delegates as there are openings. For example, if the town or ward gets to elect five male delegates to the convention, everyone can vote for up to five men who are nominated. After the vote for male delegates, there will be a similar vote for female delegates.

Sometimes there is an open "negotiation" that allocates delegates based on candidates' relative strengths. But usually the top vote-getters are simply elected. This means that you do not need a majority of the votes to become a delegate -- you only need a plurality. If you plan to run for a delegate slot yourself, bring a dozen friends and neighbors (all must be registered Democrats from your ward!) and you have a good chance of getting elected.

Those who want to run for delegate positions will have the chance to make a two-minute speech, to state their qualifications and to declare who they will support for governor and the other races at the convention. Many will only declare support for the governor's race -- and that support only means that they'll vote for that candidate on the "first ballot." After that, the convention is open for free voting by all delegates.

Special consideration is given to diversity representation -- the diversity criteria are: under-represented race; sexual orientation; disability; and youth. If you fit one of those categories, it's supposed to be "considered" in voting for the delegate slots. If you're not elected at the caucus, you can get a slot as an "add-on" delegate afterwards, which are reserved for diversity representatives.

The level of participation in the caucuses varies greatly, with some towns and wards having very competitive races while others field barely enough people to run for the delegate positions. Because of the crowded field for governor this year, attendance at the caucuses should be higher than usual.

This is democracy at work. You can earn yourself the right to complain about the system for the next two years by spending one day at it next week, and maybe the process can become more grass-roots and participatory while we're at it.

Bill White is the Forum Director at the Institute of Politics of the Kennedy School of Government. Jesse Gordon is the Technical Director for the Reich for Governor Committee. The Reich campaign does not endorse this editorial nor did the campaign sponsor its publication.
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