Editorial: Democracy in Massachusetts is running on empty

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

On Nov. 4, Massachusetts will once again likely be in the top in the nation of voter turnout on election Day but it won’t be because of a thriving democracy here in the Bay State.

A recent survey by Commonwealth Unbound, the online magazine of the nonpartisan public policy group MassINC, found Massachusetts ranks dead last in the nation in contested races by the major parties for seats in the Legislature.

Only 17 percent of the 160 House contests – just 28 races – have both Democrat and Republican candidates. In our region, only three of the 15 House seats have candidates from both major parties. A fourth Democrat incumbent has an independent challenger.

The numbers are a little better for the 40-member Senate. Seven races have both Republican and Democrat candidates but none of the seats in our area are contested. But we’re still last in that chamber.

Some may claim that focusing on the two parties skews the numbers but looking at the races in total, the picture is no less bleak. Only 16 of the House seats where either a Democrat or Republican is running is being challenged by either an independent or third-party candidate. In the Senate, just one non-Democrat or Republican is contesting a seat.

That is an abysmal record for a state that has prided itself on politics being more than a spectator sport.

It cannot be blamed on voter apathy. Not only is Massachusetts consistently above the national average in voter turnout in presidential elections, we ranked in the top 10 in 2006 in turnout.

Nor can the lopsided voter enrollment and registration explain the paucity of races.

Dating back four decades, Massachusetts Democrats have dwarfed the number of Republicans and both parties combined are far behind those who are unenrolled. And yet Republicans such as John Volpe, Edward Brooke, and the last three governors before the current administration have attracted voter support.

Many argue the power of incumbency thwarts challengers and they claim term limits would rectify that. Yet Minnesota has no term limits and 100 percent of their seats have candidates from each major party. In fact four of the top 10 states for contested elections and 12 of the top 20 do not have term limits so it is hard to see that as a stifling effect.

While the MassINC survey focuses on state legislatures, there is a dearth of candidates from both parties in nearly all elections in Massachusetts. The race for the U.S. Senate seat has a Republican contender challenging the Democrat incumbent but only one of the three races for U.S. House is contested, with the other two getting a free pass.

Clearly it is too late to do something about this year but we hope election officials review the rules for someone to run for office and see if any changes can be made to open up the process more, either through later filing deadlines or a reduction in the number of signatures required. (We won’t hold our breath waiting for incumbent lawmakers to loosen the rules to attract more opponents.)

In the meantime, maybe someone reading this will begin to lay the groundwork for a run in 2010. After all, we live in a democracy. Let’s try to act like one.

The Patriot Ledger