In Mass., white pols dominate state and local politics
Study proposes even-year elections for muni races
THE PREDOMINANCE OF white male politicians in positions of power in Massachusetts may be a symptom of the way elections are run, according to a report released Wednesday entitled MassForward.
The report recommends addressing the lack of minority representation in state and local government through reforms big and small, from relieving legislative staffers from the often grueling work of constituent services to completely reconfiguring the election calendar.
“The time is right to mount a comprehensive campaign to increase civic engagement and achieve balanced representation,” said the report, which was put together by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University and MassINC, the nonprofit parent of CommonWealth. “Grassroots energy is at a fever pitch. People are increasingly aware that our democracy systematically underrepresents people of color, women, and the disadvantaged, perpetuating racial and ethnic inequality.”
Overall, the report calls for more equal distribution of power, recommending some changes to shake up who is in control of state policy, and some other proposals to create more power-sharing within the Legislature.
The report also quantified how well people of color are represented in the local governments of Gateway Cities.
In Lawrence, where the population is 85 percent non-white, the political representation is 76 percent people of color. Springfield is the only other Gateway City where people of color hold a majority of the political offices. By contrast, in Brockton, nearly two thirds of the city is non-white, and only 8 percent of elected offices are held by people of color. In Fitchburg, about a third of the city is non-white, and only 5 percent of elected offices are held by people of color.
One source of this disparity is the state’s low voter participation rate, especially in municipal races, which occur on off-years. The report describes that system as “a failsafe means of dramatically reducing turnout.”
The study recommends shifting the electoral calendar so that municipal elections would occur on even years – when state lawmakers and members of Congress are up for re-election. Every other even-year election in Massachusetts is either a presidential or gubernatorial election as well.
Less than 20 percent of Boston’s adult residents voted in the 2017 mayoral election and, according to the study, political scientists have established that low turnout elections are are dominated by people who are plugged-in to the movers and shakers, while young people and the disadvantaged are under-represented. In town meetings, the way smaller municipalities govern themselves, only two percent of eligible adults participated.
There is also a lack of electoral competition, especially in hastily scheduled low-turnout special elections. Nearly one quarter of state reps and more than one third of state senators first won their seats through a special election.
US Sen. Ed Markey, who won office in a 2013 special election, raised the alarm about the demographic makeup of government on Tuesday.
Lowell recently reconfigured its municipal election format – adding the role of district councilors – to try to boost representation in city government by racial minorities. Boston’s municipal election last week will result in the first council with a majority of women and a majority of councilors of color.
The report also recommends changes that the leaders of the House and Senate could undertake without as much disruption as the change in electoral calendars.
Noting how staff members are unevenly distributed depending on whether a lawmaker holds a chairpersonship or other position of power within the Legislature, the report recommends boosting the amount of legislative staff and providing them with better salaries and human resources support. Nearly half of full-time House employees earn less than $45,000 per year, and only 4 percent of the House and Senate staff make more than $100,000 per year.
To give lawmakers and their staff more time to work on policy, the report also recommends establishing a statewide 311 constituent service line. That would relieve legislative staffers of one of their core responsibilities, but it may be a tough sell among lawmakers who tout their prowess at helping their neighbors navigate government services. In a similar vein, the report renews a call for an independent legislative research office, which would help lawmakers understand the proposals they vote on without relying solely on explanations from legislative leadership or lobbyists.
The report makes no mention of the controversial 2017 law that boosted the stipends for legislative leaders without a commensurate increase in staff pay. The purported intention of that law was to make top lawmakers’ pay “adequate enough to attract and retain qualified individuals to a public career and ensure that there is not a temptation to betray the public trust.”
The report includes a couple other recommendations, as well as an appendix reviewing other ideas – such as boosting civic education, allowing youth to participate in municipal elections, ranked-choice voting, Election Day registration, and an independent review of ballot questions.
Massachusetts has a limited system for public financing of political campaigns. The State Election Campaign Fund distributed just over $1 million to gubernatorial candidates last year, according to an audit. A 1998 ballot question overhauled that public-financing system, but those changes were effectively repealed in 2003.
The MassForward report proposes giving a boost to public financing, arguing that the current fundraising system helps incumbents. A public financing system could be designed to reward candidates who raise donations from small-dollar donors, the report says.The report also notes the dramatic decline of nearly two thirds of newspaper staff since 2001, and says the “diminished power of the news media to provide checks on the state legislature’s highly concentrated power is especially dangerous.”
Eyeing public broadcasting as a potential model for the future of journalism, the report endorses an idea proposed by Rep. Lori Ehrlich to establish a commission to look at the issue.