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Three Ideas To Improve Voting In Massachusetts

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A polling station in mid-Cambridge, Massachusetts's, which includes part of Massachusett's 5th congressional district, on primary day 2018.
Meredith Nierman

The Massachusetts primaries were a success — if by “success” you mean there was no obvious Russian interference, there were enough ballots for everyone, and none of candidates came to blows in the parking lot outside the local Elks hall.

But notwithstanding the excitement of Ayanna Pressley’s surprising win over longtime congressman Michael Capuano, you would have been hard-pressed to find an outbreak of civic engagement.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin had predicted that turnout would be around 15 percent — a pathetic figure that’s pretty much standard for primaries, and one more obstacle for challengers hoping to unseat better-known incumbents. Moreover, in the hotly contested Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, Daniel Koh was leading a 10-candidate field early this morning with less than 22 percent of the vote. In other words, more than 78 percent of voters wanted someone else to succeed U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who’s retiring.

Minuscule turnout and razor-thin victories by candidates who are supported by barely one-fifth of those who bothered to show up are deadly to the body politic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a reform-minded spirit and a willingness to try something new, we could reinvent elections in Massachusetts. Here are three ideas that could restore competition as well turn nonvoters into voters. What are we waiting for?

Move The Primaries To June

Galvin didn’t have to designate Sept. 4 as primary day. But he didn’t have any good choices. Given when the Jewish holidays fall this year, he couldn’t have scheduled the primaries for either of the following two Tuesdays. But who says the primaries have to be held in September?

If you’ve been paying attention to primary contests in other states, you know that voters have been casting ballots all summer. The stretch between the July 4 and Labor Day is traditionally a time when many people set politics aside and concentrate on more compelling matters, such as the beach. That’s why I’d move the primaries to sometime in mid- or late June. New York does it with federal offices; you may recall that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory in the primary for a congressional seat came on June 26. I would do the same in Massachusetts for both federal and state contests.

On the face of it, you might think a longer campaign is something to be avoided. Here’s why I think that’s wrong. A late-June primary would mean that candidates could run hard for two or three months in the spring, at a time when voters might be paying more attention. Televised debates would get bigger audiences. Challengers would be able to make their case in the high-attention months of April, May, and June rather than in the dog days of summer.

The switch would help general-election challengers as well. State Rep. Geoff Diehl, an obscure Republican, and former Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez, a little-known Democrat, now have an eight-week sprint in which to make the case that they should defeat two popular incumbents — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker, respectively. The challengers should have had the summer to put their campaigns together rather than fending off challengers from their own parties.

The good news is that both Galvin and his Republican opponent, Anthony Amore, support moving the primaries to the spring, as did Galvin’s Democratic challenger, Josh Zakim. So does The Boston Globe’s editorial page. To many this is one reform idea whose time has come.

Adopt The Instant Runoff

I’ve been arguing for this since 2000, and there are reasons to believe it might finally happen. Maine has adopted it. Cambridge has been doing it in municipal elections for years. The Boston Globe has endorsed it. The goal is to get past our winner-take-all elections, in which whoever comes in first is handed the victory, even if he or she attracts far less than a majority.

The instant runoff, also known as ranked choice, gives voters an opportunity to indicate their order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and her supporters' second-place votes are awarded to the remaining contenders. Candidates continue to be eliminated in this manner until someone has a majority. And if no candidate has a majority after the second-place votes are counted, the process is repeated with voters’ third choices, fourth choices, and so on. It's like having a series of runoff elections, except that voters only have to go to the polls once.

The advantage of this is that the eventual winner might be someone who has more broad support among the electorate than the candidate who finishes first with less than a majority. As I’m writing this, Daniel Koh is just a little more than 600 votes ahead of Lori Trahan in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, with a margin of 21.7 percent to 20.9 percent. A recount looms. In a 10-candidate field, though, it’s impossible to know which of them would prove to be more popular with voters who backed another candidate. For that matter, the consensus choice might be someone else altogether. The instant runoff would provide the answer.

For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit the website of the the nonprofit organization Voter Choice Massachusetts.

Switch To Nonpartisan Primaries

I’ll admit that I’m not as enthusiastic about this idea as I am about June primaries and the instant runoff. But despite Republican Charlie Baker’s popularity, Democrats have long had a stranglehold on politics in Massachusetts. Democrats control every statewide office except the governorship — both U.S. Senate seats, all nine congressional seats, and overwhelming majorities in both branches of the state Legislature. Consider that Pressley, following her exciting win over Capuano, will not even face a Republican opponent in November. That’s not healthy for democracy.

Nonpartisan primaries would simply mean that the top two finishers would face each other in the general election. They might be two Democrats, a Democrat and a Republican, two independents, a Democrat and a Libertarian, or whatever. Among other things, such a system might lead to the emergence of more moderate Baker-style Republicans, as right-wing candidates would no longer be assured of a spot on the November ballot simply by virtue of winning the Republican primary.

Nonpartisan primaries have been adopted in California. They have also long been in effect in cities like Boston, where both the mayor and the city council are elected without regard for party affiliation.

I would not eliminate party labels. But nonpartisan primaries could lead to more competition — especially for entrenched Democratic incumbents who coast to their party’s nomination and then face token Republican opposition (if that) in November.

The fact that not just Pressley but also challengers to several longtime legislators were successful shows that democracy in Massachusetts still has a beating pulse. But we can do better. And these are not the only ideas to improve our elections. Weekend-long voting would make it easier for many people to get to the polls than the one-day Tuesday ritual. Dividing the state into, say, three congressional districts instead of nine, with each district electing three people, could give a boost to Republicans and minority parties.

After Tuesday’s low-turnout exercise in what is supposed to be participatory democracy, though, changing the way we hold primaries and moving past winner-take-all ought to be the first order of business.

WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy is the author of “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.”

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