Are the parties over?

Independents continue to grow as share of electorate

IT’S A TREND that’s been underway for years, and it may only accelerate. For all the talk of the enduring strength of the two-party system, voters unaligned with any party make up the largest — and a growing — share of the Massachusetts electorate.

The Globe reports that the share of “unenrolled” or independent voters has ticked up slightly over the last two years and represents the largest chunk of registered voters in the state in at least 70 years.

Independents now account for 55 percent of registered voters, with Democrats claiming 33 percent and the official Republican ranks flirting with single-digital status at 10.4 percent, the lowest since Dewey didn’t defeat Truman in 1948.

The question is, what does it all mean for next week’s primary elections, when independents in the state can choose to vote in either party’s primary? Those voters are hardly afterthoughts in the primary calculus. MassINC Polling Group president Steve Koczela tells the Globe they make-up the majority of voters in most Republican primaries and about 40 percent of those casting ballots in Democratic races.

The registration numbers, on their face, might buoy the hopes of Republicans, challenging the image of Massachusetts as deep blue sea owned by Democrats. But as Tufts political scientist Jeff Berry tells the Globe, lots of independents actually lean toward one party or the other, making the term, he says, somewhat of a “misnomer.”

Certainly when it comes to congressional races, that leaning has become pretty consistently Democratic. Apart from Scott Brown’s flash-in-the-pan special election win for Senate in 2010, it’s been more than 20 years since the state sent a Republican to Congress.

The share of unenrolled voters only seems likely to grow under the recently passed automatic voter registration law, which will bring onto the rolls new voters with no history of engagement in electoral politics.

Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political science professor, tells the Globe the growing share of unenrolled voters in the state is one factor in low turnout for state primaries, since those voters feel less tethered to party-based elections.

That raises a troubling question for representation in the Bay State. With many state legislative contests and some congressional races effectively decided in low turnout party primaries (the 7th Congressional District tilt between Michael Capuano and Ayanna Pressley is Exhibit A this year), it’s fair to ask whether our current system is the right one for the times.

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.

California has thrown in the towel on the idea of party primaries, with all candidates appearing on a single primary ballot for races except president, with the top two advancing to the November general election.  Meanwhile, the idea of using another type of runoff system known as ranked-choice voting is gaining attention in the state. There is a particularly strong case to be made for such an approach in races like the 10-way Democratic primary for the Third Congressional District seat, which looks more like a crapshoot than a reasoned exercise in democracy.