An exercise in democracy or a crapshoot?

An exercise in democracy or a crapshoot?

With 12 candidates, Democratic race for 3d Congressional District may showcase election system flaws

THE DEMOCRATIC CONTEST to succeed retiring US Rep. Niki Tsongas is shaping up to be a wild scramble, with 12 candidates in the race as of this week. On the Republican side, three candidates have thrown their hats in the ring so far.

As much as the race looks like a healthy outpouring of democratic energy, it is also poised to become a textbook example of what some voting activists say is a broken election system.

Rather than a robust expression of voter sentiment, say critics, too many elections have become a crapshoot-like free-for-all in which a narrow slice of voters can elect someone who serves years in Congress or other offices with nothing remotely resembling an electoral mandate.

Under the state’s election system, the winner of primaries and general elections is the candidate with the most votes. But in a large field of contenders that can mean a winning tally that falls well short of a majority.

Majority rule “is a first principle of democracy” and it should be a “no-brainer” when it comes to how we conduct elections, said Adam Friedman, executive director of Voter Choice Massachusetts.

The unfolding race is the Third District, said Friedman, is “the poster child for why ranked-choice voting is needed.”

Plurality champs: US Rep. Michael Capuano (left) won a 10-way Democratic primary with 23 percent of the vote. US Sen. Edward Markey (right) won the Democratic primary for the House seat he held for more than three decades with just 22 percent of the vote in a 12-way field.

The citizen-led organization is pushing for Massachusetts to adopt an electoral system known as ranked-choice voting. Under such a system, which is in place in a handful of cities nationwide, including Cambridge, and was recently adopted statewide in Maine, voters in a multi-candidate race rank their choices among those in the field. If no one wins a majority of votes among first-choice selections, candidates at the bottom of the tally are eliminated and their supporters’ second choice votes are distributed to the remaining candidates. That process continues until a candidate secures a majority. Supports say the system ensures that candidates who get elected have broader support than those who win under the current structure.

Ranked-choice voting and the problem it seeks to avoid — of elections won by a mere plurality, not a majority — were the subject of a feature story in the fall issue of CommonWealth.

While the story focused on state legislative races, documenting the significant number of seats won by plurality votes, the same phenomenon occurs regularly in primary contests for Congress when a seat opens up, as is the case now in the Third District.

No one needs to remind George Bachrach of that fact. The former state senator was probably hurt by the winner-take-all primary system in 1998 when he ran for the US House seat being vacated by Joe Kennedy II. Bachrach was one of 10 Democrats to vie for the seat, placing third behind then-Somerville mayor Mike Capauno and former Boston mayor Ray Flynn.

In a field of liberal-leaning hopefuls, Flynn stood out as the lone pro-life contender. That fact prompted a good deal of chatter in the closing days of the race among liberal voters eager to stop Flynn from winning, even if it meant abandoning their first choice. That may have played in Capuano’s favor – and to Bachrach’s detriment — with late polls showing Capuano as the candidate most likely to prevail over Flynn.

In the end, the longtime Somerville mayor won the primary with just 23 percent of the vote. The victory was tantamount to winning the seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic district; Capuano rolled over his Republican opponent in the November election with 82 percent of the vote.

Capuano does not hold the record, however, for lowest plurality win among the state’s current congressional delegation. That distinction belongs to Sen. Ed Markey, who won the Democratic primary for the House district he previously represented for more than three decades by garnering just 22 percent of the vote in a 12-way field.

Key to Capuano’s victory was his strong hold on Somerville, where he had served as mayor for a decade and where no other local candidate was vying for votes in the primary. Capuano won more than half of the Somerville vote in the 10-way contest, and ran a strong second in Cambridge and Belmont, and effectively tied for second in Boston behind Flynn.

Under our current system, said Bachrach, someone can win a multicandidate race like the 1998 contest “not because they’re a consensus choice or because they get a majority, but because they have an uncontested base.”

Bachrach said he would support reforms that change that, such as the system used in other states in which candidates from all parties vie together in a primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the final election “or some variation of that.”

Voter Choice Massachusetts says ranked-choice voting is the best variation to ensure that elections honor the will of voters.

“The trope is that ranked-choice voting is complicated,” said Friedman, the group’s director, of criticism of the system. “But it’s elections like these that actually point to the fact that it’s our plurality winner system that is complicated,” he said. Elections like the 1998 contest for Congress and next year’s Third Congressional District election force voters to weigh casting a ballot for their first choice against casting a vote for another candidate who may appear to have a better shot at winning.

“To make a decision, a voter has to be a political strategist,” he said. The ranked-choice system lets “a voter be a voter rather than a political consultant or election oracle.”

Voter Choice Massachusetts is pushing two different bills in the Legislature — one that would allow communities to opt to use ranked-choice voting in municipal elections and another that would establish its use for state offices. The state Democratic Party adopted a platform plank at its convention over the summer endorsing ranked-choice voting.

If the legislation does not get taken up on Beacon Hill, Friedman said the group may consider mounting a ballot question campaign in 2020 to adopt ranked-choice voting for state and congressional offices.

Meanwhile, contenders for the Third District seat are jockeying for position under the terms of the current electoral battle rules.

That means, for example, that state Rep. Juana Matias hopes to remain the sole candidate in the field from Lawrence, which will account for about 10 percent of the primary vote. Matias, an attorney and immigrant from the Dominican Republic, rolled out the endorsement this week of the city’s mayor, Dan Rivera.

Lori Trahan, meanwhile, is working hard to establish herself as the “Lowell candidate” in the race — despite now living a couple of towns over in Westford. Trahan, who served as chief of staff to Marty Meehan when he held the congressional seat, may not live in Lowell, but she grew up there and has the backing of the city’s three state reps. (To ensure no doubts about her roots, Trahan has been using the #LoriFromLowell hashtag on social media.)

She may now face some competition for Lowellian loyalties, however, from Bopha Malone. Like Trahan, Malone, who came to the US as a Cambodian refugee, doesn’t live in Lowell. What’s more, the Bedford resident doesn’t even live in the congressional district, but she claims strong ties to the city, which has a large Cambodian community, through her work as a vice president at Lowell-based Enterprise bank and her involvement with several Lowell nonprofits.

A lone woman candidate in a large field of men might have an advantage. So might a minority candidate competing against a large number of white candidates. But the Democratic field so far includes four women and several minority candidates.

They could cut into each other’s potential bases of support, reducing the chances the primary nominates a woman or a minority candidate, even if there is a lot of support for those candidates. Interest in seeing a woman succeed Tsongas, one of only two females in the state’s House delegation, might be part of the inspiration for women to get into race, but “because there are several of them, they could hurt and punish each other,” said Friedman, who calls that the “plurality paradox.”

The size of the field and fact that it may be hard to lay sole claim to any particular voter demographic, “suggests this is a wide open race,” said Doug Rubin, a veteran political strategist working for Dan Koh, a former chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “In those kinds of races,” he said, what matters are “message, resources, and strategy.”

Friedman understands why the candidates in the Third District are positioning themselves in the race the way they are. No one blames them for looking for a winning way under the system now in place. That doesn’t mean, he said, it’s the best system we could have.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We’re not getting the best measurement of what the district actually wants as a whole,” he said.