Mass. is a participatory democracy in name only

The problem is a broken political system, not apathy

AS WE FIXATE on the presidential election, ensuring that all votes are counted and yearning for a peaceful transition of power, we must avoid the smokescreen of national politics. Democracy that affects us most directly lives — or dies — at the Massachusetts State House. And mostly it dies.

A little known secret is that state legislators in Massachusetts write their own rulebook governing how bills are introduced, debated, and voted on. The rules are written every two years at the start of the legislative session in January. These rules shield legislators from public scrutiny, making them less accountable to voters and undercutting public participation in democracy.  

To those in a torrid affair with national politics, you are not alone. Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Tufts University, finds that the college-educated spend significant time every day following politics, but less than 2 percent of that time is actually spent engaging in any form of political volunteering, while close to 90 percent is spent on news consumption, debate, and contemplation. Hersh also finds that black and Latinx people are twice as likely to participate in political volunteer activities. To those hooked on politics but unsure of how to take action, let us reaffirm the old adage: all politics is local. 

Despite this localized solution to our deep need and right to have control over our political system, the Massachusetts State House does not want us to participate. Allow us to explain. 

Our State House is shockingly opaque, lacking rules that make most votes taken by our state legislators a matter of public record. As a general rule, we do not know how our legislators vote on Beacon Hill. Even worse, most legislation is never voted on. The bulk of the actual work done in our Legislature is done in committees, including the drafting of bills and the collection of expert testimony. Votes in committee are either not publicly disclosed or impossible to track down. Hidden from constituents, legislation is usually sent to “study,” where it collects dust until the legislative session expires.   

The exclusionary and anti-participatory stance taken by the State House is the reason why, despite being one of the bluest states in the country, Massachusetts lags the country in passing even the least controversial bills, such as same day voter registration, which exists in 21 states, and renewable energy legislation that would prevent a full blown climate crisis. We live in a participatory democracy in name only. 

One might respond by blaming the electorate for their lack of engagement. This status quo-friendly argument is as untrue as it is pernicious. Any lack of political engagement is not a problem of individual apathy but a symptom of a deeply broken political system. It simply does not stand to reason that people in this state or this country want to have less say in their political system, and we see zero evidence to support such a claim. 

The last two statewide election cycles have demonstrated an increased focus on transparency. In 2018, over a dozen candidates for the state Legislature signed a transparency pledge to self-publish their voting records. Rep. Maria Robinson of Framingham and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton gave their inaugural speeches in the Legislature in January 2019 on the necessity to make the State House more transparent. In January 2021, representative-elect Erika Uyterhoeven of Somerville, the co-founder of Act on Mass, and representtive-elect Steve Owens of Watertown, a candidate endorsed by Act on Mass, will join a growing chorus of transparency fighters in the State House. 

The two of us are organizers for Act on Mass, the leading group advocating to make the State House more transparent, our democracy more responsive to voters, and civic engagement more accessible. As a new legislative session approaches in January, we are announcing the Transparency is Power campaign. 

We are organizing grassroots teams in districts across the state to hold meetings with their state representatives and demand rules changes. Our aim is to pass amendments to the House and Senate rules requiring that all committee votes are publicly disclosed, the public has more than 24 hours to review final legislation, and more votes on the floor of the Legislature are recorded publicly. 

Meet the Author

Erin Leahy

Organizer, Act on Mass
Meet the Author
The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 modernized the US Congress by increasing the number of recorded votes and shedding light on the committee process. Half a century later, the Massachusetts State House continues to operate in the dark. At such a critical juncture as the present, as national political institutions seem fragile, as communities of color demand power that has been stolen for centuries, and as we stare down a looming climate crisis, it is time to modernize our State House and bring it into the light. 

Erin Leahy and Ryan Daulton are organizers for Act on Mass.