Assessing Massachusetts' Electoral System

March 20, 2015

Among the many things you need if you want to be a successful candidate for statewide office in Massachusetts is a “D” or “R” next to your name. It’s not constitutionally necessary, of course, but practically and historically speaking, it’s essential.
At one time, voters might not have flinched at this reality. But today, 53 percent of registered voters are unenrolled in either political party, a historic high. Citizens may have turned away from political parties, but our method of nominations has not. It’s still party-centric.

First used in the 1982 election, Massachusetts’ three-part system has been remarkably resilient. The process of party nominations has its unofficial beginning in the winter of an election year, when local party caucuses choose delegates to a statewide convention.

At that convention, prospective nominees must reach a 15 percent threshold among the party delegates in order to have their names placed on the party’s primary ballot. The primary is held in September for the purpose of choosing general-election nominees.

This system is a hybrid of sorts. It fuses local party organizations and activists with party leaders and primary voters for the purpose of choosing general-election nominees.

It’s also inclusive, but only up to a point. Local caucuses are open to any party member and the primary is open to all voters with those unenrolled in a party forced to choose which ballot they wish to cast.

But as the number of party members dwindles, caucuses appeal to fewer and fewer voters. And, when given the chance to participate in party affairs through primary elections, only 17 percent of registered voters chose to do so in 2014.

Ideally, the system both strengthens political parties as civic organizations and gives party activists and ideologues an important element of power. It’s generally a good idea to have active political parties that are distinctive on important matters of public policy.

But parties are also quasi-public organizations. Citizens rely on the parties to craft the choices on the primary ballot, and taxpayers fund their primary elections.

Last week, I launched a conversation in District Hall in Boston on all of these matters with colleagues from around the commonwealth. We plan to hold additional forums to engage our fellow citizens on all matters of party nomination. At District Hall, we put many issues on the table and discussed the pros and cons of local caucuses, the 15 percent rule, a late primary, and the impact of party rules on the electorate, prospective candidates and governing.

There’s a lot of room for conversation and debate. Take local caucuses. They are an excellent opportunity for citizens to engage one another in a civic enterprise. As such, they can be a remarkable forums for local democracy.

But they can also be exclusionary. Typically held on weekends, caucuses are difficult to attend if you work on weekends or have family obligations that cannot be moved.

Likewise, the 15 percent rule is important for keeping parties active and distinctive, because it gives activists an important role. But it also limits the choices of unenrolled voters, who may often wonder why qualified candidates do not appear on the ballot.

The September primary is another area ripe for debate. Massachusetts is one of only a few states to hold a late primary. Many states choose the month of June.

A longer primary season can give an underdog candidate a real shot to build momentum, as it did for Bill Weld in 1990. But it can also heighten intra-party disagreements that may be of little interest to most voters. The pre-caucus, pre-convention, and pre-primary facets of our statewide elections – elements that appeal to relatively few voters – are collectively far longer than our general election campaigns that attract the interest of many.

Both Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker spent the better part of 12 months running in intra-party elections and events and only two months formally running against each other. Registered voters preparing to elect a governor, senator or any other statewide official have good reason to ask why those numbers shouldn’t be reversed.

To be sure, no system is perfect, and Massachusetts has, I believe, achieved a better balance among party activists, party organizations and citizens than most states have.

But after more than 30 years, we should decide if this is the system we want for the next three decades.

Peter Ubertaccio is director of the Joseph Martin Institute for Law and Society and associate professor of political science at Stonehill College in Easton.