In support of the proposal to reform the nomination process for Speaker of the House

On Wednesday, I was sworn-in to my second term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Thank you to the people of Cambridge and Somerville's 26th Middlesex District for allowing me this opportunity to serve our community — and thanks as well to all of my friends, supporters, colleagues, and especially my wife Kacy for believing in me as I continue with this important and meaningful work.

Just prior to Wednesday's formal session, I participated in a remarkable House Democratic Caucus meeting, where first-term Representative Maria Robinson of Framingham made a motion to reform the way nominations for Speaker of the House are made.

As the meeting was called to order, Rep. Robinson stood and proposed an amendment to the Rules of the Democratic Caucus that would reform the process for how the Caucus picks its nominee for Speaker. The proposed change would implement a private ballot within the caucus, while retaining an open and transparent roll call vote for the election of the Speaker during the full formal session in the House Chamber. The proposal would take effect the next time there is an election for Speaker.

The results of the "secret ballot" caucus nomination would not be binding on any member when they ultimately cast their vote for Speaker during the formal legislative session. Instead, this proposal would create an opportunity for potential candidates to test their support, thereby encouraging more folks to consider running for Speaker and encouraging different candidates to build more diverse coalitions and negotiate for better representation within the leadership structure. The proposal would also allow individual members to express their preference for Speaker without having to fear the prospect of retaliation should they favor an underdog or losing candidate.

I was proud to stand and speak in support of Rep. Robinson's motion during Wednesday's caucus meeting. Also speaking in support were Reps. Russell Holmes of Mattapan, Jonathan Hecht of Watertown, Nika Elugardo of Jamaica Plain, and Patrick Kearney of Scituate. After nearly 30 minutes of debate, the motion was defeated by the caucus.

Unfortunately, much of the coverage of Wednesday's debate seemed to gloss over the nuanced rationale for this proposal and the examples that support it. The debate was framed simply in terms of "transparency," despite the fact that under the terms of the proposal, the floor vote for Speaker would remain completely open and transparent. As it stands, current Speaker Robert DeLeo was the only Democrat to seek the nomination, and he defeated the only other candidate to step forward on Wednesday, Republican Leader Brad Jones, in a floor vote of 119 to 31, with 8 voting present and 2 being absent.

It's worth pointing out that Rep. Robinson's proposal aligns with practices found in many other legislative bodies around the world; to wit:

  • United States Congress. A little over a month ago, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi supported a secret ballot in the House Democratic Caucus in advance of this week's open roll call vote that returned her to the Speakership. 
  • British Parliament. Prime Minister Theresa May recently faced a test of her leadership, which was conducted via secret ballot.
  • Canadian Parliament. Members of the House of Commons in Canada use Ranked Choice Voting with a secret ballot to elect their Speaker of the House.
  • Australian Parliament. Members of parliament use a secret ballot to elect their Prime Minister and other leadership positions.
  • Icelandic Althingi. Members of parliament in Iceland use a secret ballot to elect their Speaker of the Althingi.

Historically, the Massachusetts House of Representatives has also elected its Speaker via secret ballot, and currently, House Rule 18B calls for the caucus to conduct a ratification vote on the Speaker's leadership and committee appointments via a written ballot. 

Also of note: Massachusetts has been a pioneer of the secret ballot. As newly-elected Rep. Patrick Kearney pointed out in Wednesday's caucus, the phrase "Massachusetts ballot" is actually a synonym for the secret ballot. It's also worth noting that reformers have been calling on the House to return to secret ballot, as recently as this 2010 proposal for reforming the Massachusetts state legislature.

It's been said that "there's no perfect voting system" (see, for example, Arrow's impossibility theorem), and I can appreciate the tradeoffs and tension between the desire for transparency and the desire to mitigate the top-down tendencies of an institution. I think this proposal strikes the right balance by allowing a private ballot in the caucus followed by an open roll call on the floor — and yet, I also understand how others might see it differently.

In closing, I want to give a lot of credit to Rep. Maria Robinson for having the courage to make this proposal on her very first day in office, and I also wish to express gratitude to Rep. Jonathan Hecht and others who have spoken on this idea. In my 2+ years in the House, this was probably the most remarkable and hotly-contested debate I've witnessed in a caucus meeting. If the first-term lawmakers and veteran lawmakers who worked to bring this proposal forward continue standing up for their values, I think it's quite possible that the 2019-2020 legislative session will prove to be groundbreaking on many fronts. 

Photo of a previous caucus meeting that was used in social media previews of this blog post is courtesy of State House News Service subscription.