Despite a reputation for good governance and civic engagement, Massachusetts’ political institutions are under-representing the commonwealth’s diversity, failing to attract participation and at risk of stagnating, a report released Wednesday has found.

The report, commissioned by the nonprofit think tank and polling group MassINC and authored by faculty from Tuft University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, highlights a persistent deficit of diversity and representation of non-white communities and women in the Massachusetts legislature. It notes that "unbalanced representation by race and ethnicity is particularly striking."

In terms of under-representation in the legislature, the report found that "White residents are overrepresented by about 16 percent" and that "Asian, African-American and Latino residents are significantly underrepresented."

It also found that women, who make up 52% of Massachusetts residents, hold less than 29% of the seats in the Massachusetts legislature.

A March 2019 report by WGBH News found that across Massachusetts, town select boards are largely dominated by men. Of the almost 1,200 town board members statewide, a little over 300 are women. The pattern is repeated in the cities, where 176 of 603 council seats are held by women.

The report also addresses a broader set of “structural weaknesses” in the fabric of civic participation in the commonwealth, ranging from a decline in local journalism to electoral structures that favor incumbents to a rigid hierarchy in the state legislature itself that concentrates the ability to govern largely in the hands of a select and entrenched leadership.

“We need more people and more diverse people to be involved in the process of governance in Massachusetts,” Peter Levine, the lead author of the report and a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civil Life, told WGBH News on Tuesday.

The report was released as part of Wednesday's MassForward, a forum hosted by MassINC and the Boston Foundation aimed at "advancing democratic innovation and electoral reform in Massachusetts."

Massachusetts government, Levine said, is “too narrow, it’s too clubby, the leadership is not diverse. But also, there’s just not enough people exercising their creativity and leadership and bringing their perspectives.”

That's less the fault of individual representatives, Levine said, than the result of a rigid, top-down hierarchy within the legislature itself.

"Inside the legislature, especially the House, almost everything is done by the leadership," as opposed to lower-ranking representatives who, Levine said, are often under-staffed and left out of much of the legislative process.

The report identifies three other areas of "weakness" undermining civic engagement and potential solutions:

  • Frequent elections: The report finds that “frequent elections make the electorate less representative and policy outcomes more vulnerable to special interests,” noting that voter turnout in Massachusetts was relatively high — 56% — for the 2018 general mid-term election, but much lower for the primaries that also determined two-thirds of state legislative races that cycle. Turnout is even lower in odd-year municipal elections. The report recommends synchronizing state and local elections, noting that "holding elections in odd years is a failsafe means of dramatically reducing turnout. … Other cities and states have moved municipal contests to even years. Massachusetts can and should do the same."
  • Elections dominated by incumbents and insiders: Noting that Massachusetts has recently ranked "last or nearly last on measures of electoral competitiveness for state legislatures," the report found that only one-third of seats in the legislature were contested in 2018 and that the lack of competition "has been particularly notable in the state’s Democratic primaries." The report recommends the public funding of campaigns — and, perhaps more controversially, of political parties — to promote competitive races.
  • The decline of local reporting: The number of people employed in local journalism has declined sharply nationwide, and Massachusetts is no exception. The report cites statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing a roughly 60% drop in newspaper employment in Massachusetts in the last 20 years. The report recommends public and nonprofit investment in the press. Rather than recommending a model, the report suggests the legislature establish "a commission to examine policy options to ensure that residents in all our communities have access to quality state and local news."