The state Legislature is too white, too male and lists too many members from a single party — Democrat — and our election system might have something to do with that.
A report last week by MassINC said that, from local government up through the Legislature, the Bay State “is not producing a body of representative leaders equipped to do the work of the entire people.” White male Democrats are “overrepresented” in the Legislature, while the House and Senate count too few members who are women, Asian, African-American or Latino residents of either sex.
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who has kept an eye on state government for the past, oh, 300 years or so. To reach a gender balance, women would have to pick up the seats of 47 men in the Legislature, which the report says is nearly 25% of all seats.
Republicans have long been in the minority in terms of political party representation. The MassINC study said the GOP would have to pick up 16 seats in the Legislature to match the percentage of voters who identify as Republicans or who lean Republican.
The report said the way the state runs its elections has a lot to do with how women and people of color are underrepresented on Beacon Hill. Massachusetts offers citizens “far more opportunities to vote than other democracies provide,” but this puts more of an onus on people to go to the polls more often, which “reduces turnout and advantages voters with greater means.”
Again, history shows a relatively low number of voters — just 19% — cast ballots in primaries, which determined the outcome of two-thirds of the state legislative races in 2018, for example.
Legislative elections in Massachusetts are less likely to be contested, which has led to the Legislature being dominated by insiders.
The report recommends synchronizing local and state elections, which would mean voters would go to the polls less often, but would likely find more reason to go because there would be more races on the ballot.
On the idea about consolidating local and state elections, we believe voters would find that to be a huge plus. Between city or town elections, state primaries and general elections and national elections, voter fatigue and confusion are to be expected in Massachusetts. It’s possible that some local elections could be overshadowed by state campaign advertising and news coverage, but the idea of limiting the number of times people have to vote could help all of us focus more on this important obligation.
The question of increasing the number of women and people of color in the Legislature is a tougher one to address. The Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus has been working to enlist and enable more women to run for local and legislative seats, with some success. But any campaign against an entrenched incumbent in this state is an uphill battle that requires money, volunteers and media that pays attention and takes races as seriously as possible.
There are many points in the report worth more discussion, including the idea that more lawmakers and their staff should be able to get more involved in legislative work, instead of keeping the process concentrated in the legislative leadership.
The report also recommends making public campaign financing available to candidates and political parties, considering lowering the voting age for local elections, and instituting ranked-choice voting and same-day voter registration — all ideas that could increase voter participation, if done correctly.
MassINC also urges more civic education, in line with the new state requirement of civics coursework signed into law last year by Gov. Charlie Baker. Such education “increases knowledge of government, politics, and policy issues; boosts civic skills and interest in civic engagement; decreases opportunity gaps between affluent and financially stressed students; and expands voter turnout.” This page has advocated for more civics education and would urge this report be part of a broader discussion among elected officials and, more importantly, among voters.
To read the report: https://massinc.org/research/30921/.