Making Mass. elections more
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
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
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
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
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