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Boston Globe

Making Mass. elections more democratic
By Mickey Edwards
March 30, 2002

This year, for the first time, Massachusetts voters will hear appeals from candidates whose television advertising, billboards, yard signs, bumper stickers, and campaign brochures will be paid for by the voters themselves when they pay their state taxes.

This change in election procedures is the result of a campaign initiated by citizens who were concerned that candidate dependence on private contributions had the effect of making the electoral process less democratic.

But if making elections more democratic is the goal, then it is time for another, and potentially more significant, reform as well.

In November, Stephen Lynch, the newest member of the state congressional delegation, will seek reelection with all the benefits that normally accrue to an incumbent, ranging from greater visibility to a substantial advantage in raising campaign funds.

Because Republicans have yet to build a competitive political party in Massachusetts, Lynch's election to Congress was essentially determined in the Democratic Party primary, a contest in which 61 percent of 9th District voters indicated that they wanted somebody else to represent them.

Lynch is not alone. Michael Capuano, the representative from the 8th District, will be seeking his third term in November. Capuano holds his seat despite the fact that when he first ran for Congress, before he was able to gain the advantages of incumbency, more than three out of four voters in the Democratic primary voted against him. Other members of the state's delegation in the US House of Representatives hold their seats - and thus their share of the federal power over both taxes and spending - despite the fact that the majority of the voters in their first elections preferred other candidates.

John Olver won a 1991 special election to succeed the late Silvio Conte with only 31 percent of the vote. William Delahunt, the representative from the 10th District, received less than 40 percent of the vote. Yet, Olver, Delahunt, Lynch, and Capuano sit in the Congress and vote alongside colleagues who were the clear choice of the voters they represent.

The difference is this: In a number of states, there are potentially three election cycles, not two. The goal is to ensure that whoever wins an election is truly the first choice of the voters. Thus, if no candidate wins a majority of the votes in the first party primary, a runoff election is held between the candidates with the two highest vote totals.

When the general election is held in November, both parties are represented by candidates who are the choice of a clear majority of that party's primary election voters. In those states, there is simply no such thing as a member of Congress - or, for that matter, a governor, attorney general, state treasurer, or any other high-ranking public official - who was not the choice of the majority of the people in his or her political party.

There is, of course, the argument that democracy is expensive, that holding a third round of elections will cost the state millions of dollars. With their votes in favor of taxpayer funding of political campaigns, Massachusetts voters have already indicated that they think democracy is worth the extra expense. But even if one does not accept that argument, there are ways to ensure election majorities without running up a higher tab.

Voters in San Francisco recently voted for a system of instant runoff voting, a process in which voters choose both a favorite candidate and a second choice; if no candidate has won a majority, the candidates with the lowest vote totals are eliminated and their supporters' second choices receive the votes of those candidates who have been dropped from contention.

A similar process is currently being considered in Vermont, where the proposal was recently debated at more than 50 town meetings.

Such systems are already in use in other countries (Great Britain and Australia, to name two), and ensure that no candidate will be elected without substantial public support.

Instant runoffs are not without their drawbacks. For one thing, the top two candidates in a multi-candidate race would have no ability to draw distinctions between themselves in a clear one-on-one fashion. With many candidates in a first-stage primary, each is forced to divide his or her attention among several of the more serious contenders.

With the field narrowed to just two candidates, instant runoffs allow no additional opportunity for either of the two finalists to focus greater attention on the remaining opponent's public record, policy positions, experience, or personal character.

In my previous home state of Oklahoma, where time is permitted for a second round of campaigning, it is not uncommon for a first-place finisher in a multi-candidate primary to lose in the runoff as the backers of eliminated candidates subject the final two to closer scrutiny.

Nonetheless, the result in either runoff system is ultimately more democratic than elections in Massachusetts; in states where runoffs are required, no candidate can win election to Congress unless he or she is the choice of a majority of his or her party's voters; it is a system election reformers in Massachusetts should consider as well.

Mickey Edwards, a former member of Congress, teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.


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