Democracy isn’t working in Massachusetts
Crowded winner-take-all primaries, incumbency, and special elections subvert will of voters
ON SEPTEMBER 15, 1998, David Nangle, then a State House aide, was effectively elected to the Massachusetts Legislature even though 76 percent of the voters in the district where he ran chose someone else that day. Nangle won the Democratic primary for an open Lowell-based seat in the House of Representatives by garnering just 24 percent of the vote in a field of six candidates. Two months later, Nangle easily defeated his Republican opponent in the November general election to become the state representative for the district—seemingly for life, if he so chooses.
Nangle is hardly alone in claiming a seat in the Legislature with something less than a clear mandate from voters. Last fall, William Driscoll won a seven-way Democratic primary for an open House seat representing Milton and part of Randolph with only 21 percent of the vote. He was unopposed in the general election. And last April, Joseph Boncore won a special election Democratic primary for a state Senate seat by capturing 26 percent of the vote in a seven-person field. The victory sealed his election to the Senate, as he faced no opposition the following month in the general election for the seat representing his hometown of Winthrop along with Revere and parts of Boston and Cambridge.
These elections all failed a basic test of democracy: respecting the will of the majority. But that shortcoming is only the last in what is often a series of cascading steps that contribute to an election system that has atrophied badly and is not serving our democracy well.
Incumbency carries such outsized advantages that sitting legislators are almost never defeated. Indeed, as Nangle’s election history underscores, they often don’t face opposition at all, or only nominal challengers.
The only real opportunity for voters to weigh in on who represents them on Beacon Hill often comes with elections for open seats with no incumbent running. Because most districts in Massachusetts have a clear partisan tilt (the overwhelming share of them toward Democrats), most races for open seats are effectively decided in party primaries, which draw a lower turnout of voters. As in the three examples above, candidates often win with far less than majority support as votes are split among a crowded field.
What’s more, a sizeable number of open-seat legislative races over the last two decades have been decided in special elections prompted by the mid-term resignation of a lawmaker. These contests tend to draw fewer voters than regularly scheduled elections and their timing tends to favor political insiders who can quickly assemble a campaign operation for the short sprint to a special election date set by legislative leaders. That further distorts an already compromised electoral structure.
It all adds up to a dispiriting reality: We have a system for electing members of the Massachusetts Legislature that has strayed far from democratic principles.
Not surprisingly, the problem isn’t something on the radar screens of incumbent lawmakers on Beacon Hill. But some activists are starting to push for change (see “Pushing ranked choice with beer (and pie)”). No reforms will necessarily convince more candidates to run for office or compel more voters to go to the polls, but some of the proposals being floated hold the promise of encouraging more political competition and strengthening the principle of majority rule. Isn’t that what elections are supposed to be about?
David Nangle’s electoral success in the years since he won his House seat is typical for Massachusetts legislators. Once in office, there is little likelihood a challenger will push them out. When incumbent state representatives run for reelection, they win 96 percent of the time. Incumbent state senators have an even better track record, with a 99 percent reelection rate.
The state’s lack of political competition was the focus of a 2009 feature in CommonWealth, which attributed the dominance of incumbents on Beacon Hill to the entrenched power structure there, the view of legislating as a profession (something strengthened earlier this year with a much higher pay structure), and the general acceptance by voters of a Legislature where turnover is rare. One line in the article stands out: “Without elections, we’re not a democracy. But without candidates, we’re not much of a democracy either.”
To appear on the ballot in Massachusetts, candidates must collect 150 signatures for state representative and 300 for state senator. Although this may seem to be a small barrier, tight deadlines and hyper-technical rules sometimes keep legitimate candidates off the ballot. In 2016, 96 percent of legislative races in Minnesota and 100 percent in Michigan included both Republican and Democratic candidates. In those states, major party candidates are allowed to pay a $100 filing fee in lieu of collecting signatures.
In the relatively rare cases in Massachusetts where there is a choice between an incumbent and a challenger, usually it is only token opposition. In 86 percent of House races and 90 percent of Senate elections with incumbents between 1998 and 2016, the election was non-competitive, with the winning margin of victory greater than 20 percentage points. When there is an open seat, by contrast, only 20 percent of elections are non-competitive and only a handful have only one candidate.
Despite the long odds, about 50 challengers managed to defeat incumbent state representatives over the course of 1,453 elections since 1998, or about 4 percent of the time. Only two incumbent state senators were defeated in 362 attempts.
Potential challengers know that the most realistic chance of being elected to the Massachusetts Legislature is to wait for an open seat—when an incumbent takes another job, retires, or dies. But open seats are a rarity: Only one out of eight legislative races in Massachusetts is incumbent-free. Thus, the typical voter gets a realistic chance to pick his or her legislator only once every 16 years.
When legislative seats do open up, the elections to fill them often defy the principle of majority-rule. The winner fails to win majority support in 40 percent of open-seat contests, most often in the primary but sometimes in the general election. (See Table 3.)
Of course, most winners of legislative races do claim a majority of the votes, but that’s only because any competition at all is so rare. In general elections, even when there is an open seat, there is almost always a majority winner because typically there are only two candidates on the ballot. Not only are the Democratic and Republican parties usually the only game in town, in most districts one of the two parties is dominant, so all of the meaningful competition occurs within the party primary.
Although primaries are often the more important election for legislative races, primary turnout is much lower than general election turnout, and it has been declining. In recent presidential elections, 60 to 70 percent of those eligible to vote in Massachusetts cast ballots. However, state legislative primary election turnout is low even in presidential years, because the presidential primary is not held at the same time as the state primary. In November 2016, general election turnout was the highest in decades, but fewer than 8 percent of eligible voters turned out two months earlier for the September primary, the lowest yet recorded.
General election turnout in recent gubernatorial elections has rarely exceeded half of those eligible. As in presidential years, primary turnout is far lower, and hit a new low of 15 percent in 2014. Even in 1982 and 1990, when there were close races in both the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor, primary turnout was still barely more than one third of those eligible, lower than any general election.
ISN’T THAT SPECIAL
In 2010, Christopher Speranzo, the state representative for the Third Berkshire District, decided to run for reelection despite the knowledge that he was likely to be offered a better-paying, lifetime appointment as a court clerk magistrate. After newspaper coverage of the Pittsfield politician’s less-than-full commitment to serving out a new term, Speranzo’s only opponent on the November ballot, a Green-Rainbow Party challenger, drew 45 percent of the vote in the general election. Speranzo won with 55 percent of the vote, but resigned his seat half a year into the new term after being tapped by then-Gov. Deval Patrick for the court post, triggering a special election in the fall of 2011 to fill the seat. (Speranzo himself had first been elected to the Legislature in a special election in 2005 when the previous incumbent also resigned for a better job.)
In the 2011 special election to succeed Speranzo, Tricia Farley-Bouvier won the Democratic primary with 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race. She then defeated three opponents (Republican, Green-Rainbow, and United Independent) to win the general election—but with only 33 percent of the vote. Despite having been nominated by a minority of Democratic voters in a low turnout special election primary and then elected by a minority of voters in a low-turnout general election, Farley-Bouvier faced no primary or general election opponents in her first two reelection races.
Fifty of the 199 open-seat elections for state representative over the past two decades, or 25 percent, and 18 of the 56 open-seat elections for state senator, or 32 percent, occurred in special elections—held other than at the usual dates of September and November of even-numbered years. Special elections often draw less media coverage, and many voters are not even aware that an election is occurring. On average, special elections have 20 percent fewer primary voters and 73 percent fewer general election voters than other open seat contests, as shown in Table 4.
Special elections are called by the leaders of the House or Senate when a vacancy occurs sufficiently in advance of the next regular election. A compressed calendar to collect signatures, raise funds, and run a campaign favors candidates closely tied to the political establishment. A total of 70 House and Senate special elections were called between 1997 and 2016, spread out over 49 different dates. In 1999 alone, there were nine special election dates, all but one of which involved only a single electoral district. The extremely low turnout in special elections, and primary elections generally, further facilitates this insider game.
Since they appear to value democracy highly, why aren’t more Massachusetts citizens speaking out about its failures in their own backyard? Voters may not be aware of the pervasiveness of the lack of competition and incumbent advantage, thinking that the lack of competition may be peculiar to their own district, rather than a general feature of the system. They also may not be aware that there are solutions.
In an election that only requires that the winner receive the most votes (a plurality), not necessarily a majority of votes, the number and mix of candidates can significantly affect the outcome. For example, if there are two or more candidates who appeal to the same group of voters, splitting their vote, the preferences of this group may be effectively ignored, even if it constitutes a majority of those voting. In plurality-rule elections, voters are often afraid to express their true choice lest it mean that their least favorite candidate gets elected. This dynamic—the spoiler problem—has certainly held back support for third-party and independent candidates in general elections and it can hurt primary candidates who aren’t considered to be in the top tier of contenders
In recent years, four states have sought to address the plurality-rule problem by abandoning party primaries in favor of a two-round system of elections. In these states, all candidates are listed together on the same ballot in the first round (rather than having separate party ballots). In California, Nebraska, and Washington, the top two finishers in the first round, which is held months earlier, advance to the November general election. In Louisiana, all candidates appear on the November ballot, and anyone who wins an outright majority is elected; if no candidate has a majority, the top two compete in a December run-off. Although two-round systems reduce the spoiler effect, there is often a huge turnout difference between the two rounds. The 2016 gap in percentage points was 28 in California, 38 in Louisiana, and 44 in both Washington and Nebraska. California’s was less because it holds its state and presidential primaries on the same day. Still, this is a major difference in the size of the electorate.
When there are many candidates in a race, however, a two-round run-off system does not entirely address the problem of plurality-rule or spoiler candidates, and limiting the final choice to the top two finishers can distort the preferences of the overall electorate. A two-round system has been used in nonpartisan Massachusetts municipal elections for decades. In the 2013 open race for mayor in Boston, which drew 12 candidates, 65 percent of voters in the September preliminary did not choose either Marty Walsh or John Connolly, the top two finishers who advanced to the final election.
An alternative to run-off systems is ranked-choice voting, which was first proposed by MIT Professor William Robert Ware in 1870 and has been used in Ireland and Australia for decades. Ranked-choice voting eliminates the spoiler problem, but without the problems of a two-round system seen in the 2013 Boston mayor’s race.
As in the four states that have adopted two-round systems, party primaries are not needed under ranked-choice voting. All candidates appear on a single ballot, and instead of being limited to a single choice as they are today, voters can select multiple backups in case their first choice does not receive enough support.
Voters rank candidates from first to last. If there are four candidates, for example, voters rank the candidates 1-4 in order of their preference for them. The ballots are counted by computer as a series of run-off elections. At each stage, a majority is required to declare a winner. If a majority threshold is not reached, the lowest-ranked candidates are removed, one at a time, and their ballots are redistributed to that voter’s next-place choice. That process continues until a winner emerges with the support of more than half the voters. Had this system been in place for the 2013 Boston election, a candidate who did not finish in the top two among first preferences might have emerged as the winner after the rounds of candidate eliminations and vote transfers.
With ranked-choice voting there is also no need for a low-turnout first round; all the balloting takes place in a single election. Voter participation would likely jump from the 10 to 15 percent seen in today’s primaries to the 50 to 65 percent range typical of recent general elections. Having one election instead of two also means that the cost of running elections would drop significantly.
Voter participation could be further improved by finding alternatives to special elections. Currently, half the states do not use special elections to fill legislative vacancies. In these states, typically the political party that last held the seat either selects a candidate or provides a list of possible candidates to the governor or other public officials charged with appointing someone to fill a vacancy.
Another option is simply to hold some empty seats vacant longer. Since 1997, almost 39 percent of special elections for the Legislature have been held in even-numbered general election years, one as late as June. Instead, the election could be delayed to the regular November election, particularly since the Legislature does not hold regular sessions after July of an election year.Massachusetts has a venerable tradition of democracy and self-government, and we proudly claim the world’s oldest functioning Constitution. But today the state’s voters frequently face Soviet-style, single-candidate elections. When they do have a choice, it is often a decision settled in a primary or special election by a small fraction of the eligible voters. Against that backdrop, adopting rank-choice voting, easing access to the ballot, and rethinking special elections may not be radical disruptions as much as necessary first steps to renew the participatory, democratic spirit the Commonwealth was founded with.
Paul Schimek is a data scientist and researcher living in Boston with a longstanding interest in voting and democracy. He is a member of Voter Choice for Massachusetts.