Our democratic institutions are failing voters

Too many are going to the polls with no idea who is running for office

MORE MASSACHUSETTS voters will participate in the Democratic primaries for constitutional office than any year since 2006. There’s just one big problem: most of them have no opinion of the candidates.

As shown in a recent MassINC poll sponsored by Priorities For Progress, fewer than half of primary voters believe they have sufficient information to choose a candidate for lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, or secretary of state. This is a three-alarm fire for our Commonwealth’s democracy: we have collectively failed to get voters the information they need to make informed choices.

Why is it so problematic that most voters are clueless about a Democratic primary? These offices – and the leaders who will hold them – will gain immense power to shape Massachusetts both now and in decades ahead. The victors of these elections could root out inefficiency and corruption, inject the Commonwealth’s elections with new vigor, defend the people’s rights in court, and determine the state government’s relationship with municipal governments. Or, they could do business as usual or even make things worse.

Moreover, the candidates seeking these seats have decades left in their careers. A strong performance in statewide office will position them for the corner office or US Senate. It is in these down-ballot races that the Commonwealth’s long-term future will be determined.

This poll shows how our democratic institutions have collectively failed to make that case to the voters. Asked if they had enough information to vote for statewide office, roughly half said no for both secretary of state and attorney general. Even more reported a lack of sufficient information to decide on lieutenant governor (60 percent) and auditor (71 percent). Only half of respondents said they had been reached by any campaign, incumbent or not; no single campaign reached more than a quarter of primary voters.

As might be expected in this low-information environment, voters have struggled to form opinions of the candidates. More than half have never heard of any candidate for lieutenant governor or auditor. Only one non-incumbent candidate, Andrea Campbell, is viewed favorably by at least a third of poll respondents. For most non-incumbent candidates, even voters who have heard of them are about as likely to have no opinion than to view them favorably or unfavorably.

This absence of public deliberation on the candidates opens the door for money to have outsized influence. Without robust, trustworthy, and engaging information reaching voters, a single well-funded ad push can push any candidate over the edge simply by increasing their name recognition. This is exactly the dynamic we have seen with Shannon Liss-Riordan’s rise in the polls: a surge of self-funded ads in an otherwise low-information campaign has redefined the contest to be the people’s attorney. The dilemma, however, goes beyond any individual candidate. We cannot accept a reality where statewide offices can be decided by infusions of cash by those on the ballot. Our democracy must do a better job of inviting voters to shape their own future.

The good news is that voters want to be engaged. General election turnout has been on the incline, and in June, 90 percent of likely primary voters said they were enthusiastic about this fall’s elections.

The problem is not apathy but a failure of our democratic institutions. While turnout is forecasted to be higher than Democratic primaries for constitutional office since 2006, it will still be much lower than in November’s general elections—and those who are voting do not feel they have the tools they need to make informed choices. An election after Labor Day, the day school is starting for many voters, is a recipe for low engagement. Add in continued turnout disparities along lines of race and wealth, and we can see we are not delivering meaningful voice and choice for all.

Real voice and choice for all will require addressing the need for more and better information. If we care about democracy in Massachusetts, we should stand against the consolidation and hollowing-out of journalism in the Commonwealth. We should find and fund new ways to bring civic news to the people and leverage this state’s strengths and technological prowess in doing so. Campaigns and civic organizations should take it upon themselves to focus their communications on meaningful policy differences among candidates. Campaign finance laws need to function to ensure all candidates on the ballot cross some minimal threshold of public awareness. And we should time and structure elections to maximize voters’ participation.

Democracy is imperiled at the national level. But voters turning their focus only nationally has led to the failure of democracy in our state. We need a movement to secure real voice and choice for all in the Commonwealth. Our long-term well-being hangs on it.

Danielle S. Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and a former candidate for governor of Massachusetts. Liam Kerr is an organizer of Priorities For Progress and co-founder of WelcomePAC. John Griffin serves as an advisor to both Danielle Allen and Priorities For Progress.