Accepting JConway’s Challenge – Party Participation 101

Scaling the walls of the Massachusetts Democratic Party with Christopher - promoted by hesterprynne

On one of the recent threads regarding the race for DNC Chair, JConway suggested that I try my hand at a diary written in layman’s terms regarding how to break into what to some may feel like a fortress which is difficult to breach.  While the information is available, upon reflection maybe my “special power” which I denied having in response to the linked comment is that I have a high tolerance and understanding of the nuances of rules and procedure that not everyone shares.:)  This diary will attempt to address a few different possible points of entry into participation in the institutional Democratic Party.

I want to immediately share two links, the subpages of which I will refer to throughout without linking separately, but where more details and information can be found.  The first is our state party website, on which you can find such things as contact info for local committee chairs and state committee members, party documents (charter, bylaws, platform), and during this time of year date and location information for your local caucus.  I would take a couple minutes to browse the tabs that remain at the top of the webpage and sign up for updates under the get local tab.  In response to JConway’s particular question about how I started getting information, it’s been 20 years and my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I suspect I looked up the MDP and signed up for regular emails, which is where I got info about being a delegate my first time.  From there, you learn things from events and opportunities and it kind of snowballs.  The front page of the party website includes links to recent issues of Kate’s DDemDispatch, the gold standard for communicating opportunities and events which is a model for regional newsletters such as for the North Shore and the Merrimack Valley, the former by BMGer and DSC member Arthur Powell and the latter by yours truly.  The second main link is the Election Division website, which has information on voting generally and seeking public office.  However, I guess since it is not the year for partisan elections the guide to seeking town and state committee seats, which is what I was really looking for, is not currently posted, so I will try my best to “wing” that one for now:(

Right now the most timely point of entry is the local caucus, at which delegates are selected to the state convention.  The caucus schedule is under the caucuses tab on the party website, but as we are now at about the midpoint in the window many have already taken place.  If yours has not and you are free just show up.  Two concrete steps we took this year to widen the circle of potential participants are allowing same-day registration and allowing pre-registered teenagers who will be 18 by the September 2018 primary to participate.  There is a rule allowing people who wish to attend convention to inform their local chair of interest and be elected under suspension of the rules, but that deadline has passed.  The pattern has been not to allow it in nominating years so that option may not be available next time.  Once at caucus you may be asked if you are interested in serving as a delegate, which means being available to spend all day in Lowell on Saturday June 3rd.  Nominations are done by very basic parliamentary procedure with secret ballots if a contest and voice vote by acclamation if not.  Local delegations must be gender balanced.  Local chairs, DSC members, and many elected officials are automatic delegates.  If you are a youth (up to age 35), minority, or disabled, and either could not attend caucus or failed to get elected you are eligible to apply for an add-on seat, the applications for which are on the website and the deadline is early April.  During off years it is generally a matter of ask and ye shall receive unless it turns out you aren’t a registered Dem or don’t meet the criteria, but nomination years are more competitive here too.  Finally, there is a delegate fee ($75, discounted to $50 for seniors, students, and disabled, with a $25 late fee) BUT do not hesitate to apply for a fee reduction or waiver if you feel the need as the party has typically been generous in granting those.  Again, payment or waiver application can be done through the website.  Preliminary Call to Convention with the Method of Selecting Delegates is on the website for the rules nerds among you, but warning – may cause drowsiness!:)

Regarding convention there are a couple more ways to get involved even if you are not a delegate.  The party will be looking for several volunteers to help the convention go smoothly from a logistical standpoint.  Candidates for state office will need volunteers as well, especially next year, but maybe a few this year with one announced gubernatorial candidate and possibly a couple others as June approaches.  This information will be available closer to time.  Also, as this is a platform year (every four years immediately preceding the statewide nominations year), there will likely be opportunities to attend hearings around the state for activists to give input.  I expect more information about those after the caucus window closes as delegates will be the most interested audience.  Sign up for the party’s email list to be sure you receive this information in a timely fashion.

The next point of entry is the town and ward committees.  Note that many cities are divided into wards and in those cases wards determine membership and city committee membership is simply the collective membership of all the ward committees in that city.  Before I go any further here I feel I should be very honest about the widely varying nature of these committees.  Some are extremely active, meet monthly, and never let their communities forget they exist.  On the other extreme you have those you’d be lucky to get to hold their annual caucus, and unfortunately a few that don’t exist at all.  There is also I have found a wide range of welcoming attitude among the committees.  If you are able to get to caucus, approach the chair afterwards to express interest in joining.  Many committees have vacancies and even those which don’t may have associate (non-voting) membership opportunities.  Often when vacancies occur in their voting membership committees draw from their pool of associate members to fill them.  Some communities even schedule committee meetings immediately following the adjournment of caucus.  If caucus is not an option look up your chair’s contact info on the state party website and reach out that way to express interest.  If your town or ward chair isn’t listed it might mean no committee, but could just as easily mean the information never got posted.  If that is the case you can either contact the party or a state committee member from your senate district (also on the party website) to see what the situation is.  If there is no committee and you are really ambitious either your DSC member or party staff should be able to help you figure out what you need to start one.  The next general election for town and ward committees is on the same ballot as the presidential primary in 2020.  If you start being active now the incumbents may ask you to join their slate and you will all work together to get on the ballot.  If you run by yourself or as part of a challenging slate there are similar rules as running for public office.  You need signatures (I think just 10) from Dems in your town/ward by a given deadline and hussle for votes.

There are a few ways to join the state committee, but at least a couple years of campaign or local party activism is the best way to be a credible candidate.  The first way is similar to the local committee as described above and on the same ballot.  One man and one woman are to be elected per state senatorial district.  The second way is via a senate district conference, by which one man and one woman are also elected per senate district.  Delegates are elected by the town and ward committees in the district to meet at a designated time and place to elect those DSC members.  These take place within a month of the primary, but only if more than one candidate has expressed interest to the state party for a given seat.  If there is only one declared candidate the conference is cancelled and that candidate is declared elected.  Another way is through the add-on process.  The governing documents allot certain numbers of seats to various constituency and interest groups.  These individuals are elected by the 160 district members at the first meeting of the quadrennium, and vary widely in level of competitiveness.  Credible candidates should communicate with DSC members ahead of time to ask for their votes.  Vacancies that occur midterm in district seats are filled by the conference method and the add-on seats are filled by a vote of the DSC at their next meeting following the declaration of a vacancy.  The final way to get involved in DSC affairs is join one of the subcommittees, which again are on the website.  The DSC Chair has the discretion to appoint non-DSC members to comprise up to 25% of any subcommittee.  I suspect again that signing up for the email would be the best way to make sure you get info on this.  This is a good way to get to know DSC members and may be advantageous in efforts to be subsequently elected to the DSC or selected as an add-on convention delegate.

By its nature getting involved nationally is the most arduous, but not impossible.  Each spring following their own election the DSC elects two men and two women to serve a four-year term commencing at the adjournment of that summer’s national convention.  While technically any registered Dem in MA is eligible to be elected, in practice DSC members enjoy a huge advantage.  If a non-DSC member does get elected to the DNC that person automatically becomes part of the DSC as well.  The other way to get involved nationally is to serve as national delegate.  During the presidential year separate caucuses are held in each congressional district for any candidate receiving at least 15% of the primary vote, at different locations but the same date and time throughout the state.  These can be very competitive and credible candidates put in a lot of volunteer hours for the campaign of their choice.  (Hint: I hear New Hampshire is a lovely place to spend a lot of time in the winter!)  Presidential campaigns retain the right to veto a delegate if their is a question about that delegate’s loyalties.  There are also at-large delegates elected by the DSC, though campaigns are often more aggressive at this level than at the CD level in determining who can run.  Unfortunately, expenses associated with DNC membership or national delegate are the responsibility of the individual, though delegates sometimes hold fundraisers to defray costs.  The state party does not contribute.

Well, I hope y’all find this helpful.  I did it mostly off the cuff so it should go without saying that this diary should be treated as unofficial, and any apparent discrepancies between this and any documents on the party website should resolve in favor of the official party documents.  One more thing.  If you are in college or are under 36, check out respectively College Dems or Young Dems, both of which are great ways to get involved and informed.  If other DSC members here think I missed an important detail or was inaccurate in any way please drop a comment.  If anyone has any questions please use comments for that too.  My goal was to strike a balance between not getting too much in the weeds and not neglecting anything important.  I will close by reiterating that I think the best way to stay informed is to sign up for the emails.


18 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Paging JConway

    Here is the diary you asked for. I’m adding this comment for visibility and if you would be so kind as to recommend it that would help too.

  2. A for Effort!

    Strongly pleased by your acceptance and this is a good guide for me. The test is if others here and those off-BMG understand.

  3. TL; DR?


    • Well...

      …the TLDR version of the above is check the website yourself and sign up for the emails, but when I’ve tried that in the past I get complaints basically saying I expect too much of people, hence this diary.

  4. Town committees

    Town committee is usually an elected post, but (in most places, I think) the Chair can appoint you if there’s a vacancy, which there nearly always is.

    • Town committees are elected..

      ..on the Presidential Primary ballot. The committee can vote to add a member if they are not at their cap of 35 members. They can also add an unlimited number of associate members, provided they meet committee qualifications for residency, age, party registration, etc.

      This is controlled by state law for all parties, which is why I happen to know.

    • Technically...

      …the DTC has to vote you in though I’m sure in many cases the chair can say he has found someone willing and that person will be elected by acclamation.

  5. Two small corrections

    Christopher, I wasn’t at first quite sure what you meant in stating: “There is a rule allowing people who wish to attend convention to inform their local chair of interest and be elected under suspension of the rules, but that deadline has passed.” – I assume you are referring to the practice of electing non-attendees to run for delegate? If so, there is no missed deadline: non-attendee candidates can be nominated (with a 2/3 vote of the caucus attendees), so long as there are insufficient candidates in attendance for the election in question. (There is a separate provision for serving military personnel to be treated as in-person attendees which does have a now expired deadline, so that may be what you were conflating this with.)
    Also, state committee add-ons are elected by the 20 year and ex officio members along with the 160 district reps, i.e. a total electorate of somewhat over 300 at this point. Not a biggie – and moot until April 2020 anyway – but might as well have the correct numbers in the BMG archives should someone decide to refer to it three years hence!

    • Upon reviewing the Method...

      …it appears the Feb 4th deadline for notification was specifically for members of the armed forces who could be considered on equal footing with caucus attendees. Others just need to say anytime they are interested and can be considered if rules are suspended by 2/3 and there are still vacancies. You are absolutely correct about including 20-year and ex officio members in the pool of electors for add-on seats.

  6. Is this how people affect change, or become a beer of the Elks?

    Bylaws, subcommittees, in-person attendees…I get that any organization needs structure…but this kind of talk will induce eye-rolls to people who want to fight Trump and are looking at the Democratic Party as a way to do so. Gus Bickford sounded very much like this at a recent community meeting I attended…filled with activists who wanted to fight.

    • It's all of a piece

      To improve our fighting capability, we need to organize those who want to fight. So if I run for Congress in the Eighth (not happening), some of my first calls should be town chairs.

    • There are plenty of people...

      …who will prefer to do the more active campaigning and leave structure to others. That’s great – we need those people AND we need those willing to work internally. However, this particular diary was written specifically in response to the sentiment that people don’t know how to break into the institutional party and might be interested. As for fighting Trump, the partisan committees can and should be exactly the drivers of this at least until next year when there are specific candidates to get excited about.

    • The Committee--and Party--is what we make it

      Yes, there are some bureaucratic hoops, but the activities of Democratic City and Town Committees will be what their members make them. Probably every Committee right now is feeling some tension between “business as usual” and the need for responses to our very unusual current situation. Christopher’s information will be very helpful for people who have not found their way in, assuming they would like to be part of the Democratic Party process. As someone who found my way in within the last 2 years and is now a ward chair, I would have found it helpful. Five years ago I had no idea what a Democratic City Committee was. Today I am working with committee members and officers new and old to improve the structure, make the Committee more visible and inviting, and get more people involved. What people actually do will range all over the map. As a Committee, we’re looking hard at the “turnout” issue and how we can improve it. We have some plans. Our Committee would have growing pains anyway, but the current situation has exacerbated them. For some, the State Platform is not a sufficient expression of what we stand for as Democrats–especially given the concerns raised by the actions of ICE and CPB, the rise in hate speech and hate crimes across the country, the eerie similarity to 1930s Germany, and the conviction that we need to act locally on many of these issues. The questions become “When we are tested, as individuals and communities, where will we stand?” “How big a tent is TOO big?” and “How can the Democratic Party maximize its potential to do good (whether at City, State, or national levels) in these troubled times?” I believe these questions should (must) be part of a healthy discussion in Platform meetings this spring and at the Convention in June. Meanwhile, we do the bread and butter work of creating a structure within which people can find one another and take action.

      • I think it's great...

        …that you are a ward chair within just a few years of getting involved. Since this is after all a platform year, I’m sure some of the issues you mention will be addressed.


    Your work on strengthening the Party and our Mission through the committee process is helpful and appreciated.

    Some of us who previously worked for the Cause through the institutional party structure found it too restrictive so now we organize as volunteer progressive independent activists/campaign advisors in alliance with the party to move the ball down the field.

    We must all keep our eyes on the prize — supporting the most ELECTABLE progressive Democrats up and down the ballot.

    Fred Rich LaRiccia

  8. Pretty reflecctive

    I appreciate the effort christopher made in writing this up, I really do. And I also recognize this is more a “how to” than a “why you should” guide.

    But I think it is all of a piece. Voters are told they should vote Democrat, and when they don’t, they get blamed. We are told we should get involved, and if we don’t, we get blamed.

    Listen, I don’t do many things I should do. Get X minutes of exercise per day. Read better literature. Floss. What I need to hear is WHY I should do these things in a compelling fashion. This write-up is great procedure without giving a single idea why someone should join a town committee, or what they even do.

    As long as the Democrats’ approach to involvement is the same as my mother’s approach to green beans, a lot of people aren’t going to jump in.

    sabutai   @   Thu 2 Mar 6:50 PM
    • Absolutely

      Deval Patrick was very good at reminding us to not just talk about how we win, but why we should. I actually think the why is the easy part – because you agree with us on the issues. Of course if we have to first persuade you that we are right on the issues that’s a different discussion. This diary, though, was written with a very specific purpose pursuant to exchanges on other threads.

    • Why?

      No reason in particular.

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