Massachusetts is a global leader in innovation but not in civic matters

MASSACHUSETTS HAS BEEN long recognized as possessing unique capacities at producing innovations that have changed the nation and the world. Whether its residents are especially gifted or they take advantage of the region’s rich institutional and financial resources, the Bay State distinguishes itself as an incubator for new ideas that work. Such new ideas and ingenuity have reshaped our national industries, re-conceptualized social and community practices, and definitively reformed public policies.

Certainly, this was the case in the 1970s and ’80s, when our propensity for innovation could be seen in the emergence of the region’s technology industries. Route 128 companies such as Digital Equipment Corp., Data General, Apollo Computer, and Wang Laboratories whetted the nation’s appetite for computer technology, at the same time fueling the Massachusetts Miracle. Talents at places like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would develop the Internet, an invention unparalleled in the sphere of knowledge transfer and global communications.

In the area of crime, Massachusetts also showed itself to be a pathfinder. The Ten Point Coalition’s triangulated approach to summoning African-American faith institutions, law enforcement agencies, and the justice system into concerted efforts against youth violence is a model replicated across the country.

And more recently, the emergence of the bio-sciences industries in the Commonwealth beginning in the 1990s will mark this region as a leader on a new frontier of biological discovery and knowledge.

Yet, while Massachusetts has been in the forefront of new developments in technology, public policy, and science, our state’s efforts in the area of civic innovation have been feeble and anemic. When it comes to producing democracy-friendly solutions that ensure greater civic participation, enhance democratic commitment among new generations of citizens, and protect against electoral inequalities, our Commonwealth has done little. Why has Massachusetts, the so-called cradle of democracy at this nation’s founding, shown so little of its genius in the realm of democratic participation and civic engagement?

In terms of the rituals of democracy—voting and running for office—the numbers tell a sad story of public life in the Commonwealth. Voter participation in non-presidential statewide general elections has fallen dramatically, from more than 80 percent in 1962 to 52 percent in 1998 (bouncing back, only slightly, to 56 percent in 2002). While voter participation rates have fluctuated up and down over the course of the past half-century, the general trend has been downward, with each peak lower than the last.

To be sure, election contests involving candidates with strong (or polarizing) personalities increase voter participation. Hence, in the governor’s race between John Silber and William Weld in 1990, voting among Bay Staters spiked upward to 75 percent of registered voters, a modern high. Similarly, high voter turnout will also characterize the national election in November, when the fiercely contested presidential race will turn out voters in significant numbers. But these moments of political drama are more and more the exceptions, not the norm, providing testament to the waning and increasingly episodic civic interest among Massachusetts voters.

Proof of our civic dissolution is all the more true for young people. In Boston’s 2003 city council election, less than 15 percent of youth between 18 and 24 years old voted, one third less than the overall turnout, according to a Boston Globe report. Nationally, voter participation for youth is consistently 5 to 15 percentage points lower than average, and 50 percent below their 45-to-65-year-old counterparts. Voter participation in the 18-to-34 cohort reached its nadir at 29 percent in 2000, the lowest in a presidential race since 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18.

It’s not only voters who are dropping out of the civic sphere. It’s candidates, too. According to Massachusetts Common Cause and the Boston-based Money in Politics Project, fewer people are electing to run for office on the state level. The Bay State ranked 49th in the nation in contested state representative races in 2002. Thanks to Gov. Mitt Romney’s efforts to break up Democratic hegemony in the House and Senate, the number of contested races this year is higher than in recent years (see State of the States), but still represents barely more than half the seats in the Legislature; even with this year’s bumper crop of candidates, the Republicans are ceding 40 percent of legislative seats to the Democrats without a fight. The trend is as sobering as it is conclusive: Citizens in Massachusetts no longer deem elected office an attractive career or public service option.