Voting reform would boost democracy

April 15, 2011
By

There are two approaches to solving public policy issues. The favorite approach by politicians is one that attacks only the symptoms of the problems, like sending more people to prison without changing the conditions that lead to crime. The second approach is less common. It changes the institutional foundations of the problems, like improving our democracy so that candidates are elected by a majority of the voters. Not so now.

Massachusetts ranks first in the United States in the number of electoral races that go uncontested: 83 percent, to be exact, as reported in the Clinton Times & Courier. Last Sept. 15 for the gubernatorial election, only 1 out of every 6 registered voters turned out. A state rep. could win with only 7 percent of the registered voters in a two-candidate race, and fewer with more candidates. Many voters don’t even bother to vote for state rep.

The state that leads the nation in contested races is Minnesota, with 100 percent, according to Commonwealth Magazine. It also turns out that Minnesota is one of 39 states whose legislature only meets part-time. The average lawmaker in Minnesota makes $31,140 a year and their legislature includes farmers, teachers, social workers, retirees and even people in the military. Here, last month, Deval Patrick cut the legislators’ salary $300, about one-half of 1 percent, to just over $60,000 a year for a freshman, still leaving them more than they made two years ago.

In 1997, the voters in Massachusetts passed the Clean Elections Law, but the Legislature refused to fund it. Six years later, the Legislature voted to annul it without so much as a voice vote.

There is a Joint Election Laws Committee in the State House that is now sitting on a myriad of proposals to improve the election process in the Commonwealth, with 111 legislators signed on, and they do not include finance reform or independent redistricting, important proposals that have been resoundingly defeated in the Legislature in the past.

The one exceptionally good proposal called Rank Choice Voting (RCV) was submitted by Cambridge Rep. Alice K. Wolf. Simply put, an election would require no runoff and the candidate who is most favored would win, not necessarily the candidate who wins the plurality. Voters would assign a priority vote to their favorite candidate and another vote to their next favorite candidate, a third vote to their next favorite candidate, etc. If no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes in that election would then have their votes assigned to the candidate who was their second choice, etc., until one candidate receives a majority vote. The winning candidate would be the candidate who most people would have wanted to win.

That would be just the first step, but an important one, in reforming Massachusetts’ state politics.

Jeffrey Herman
Member of Citizens for Voter Choice
Jamaica Plain