Last November, people stood in line for hours to cast their vote on Election Day. It’s a pretty safe bet we won’t have that problem today. Turnout for the special election primary is expected to be exceptionally low. As the Marines might say: the few, the proud, the voters.
It seems wrong that so few people should select the nominees to be the state’s next US senator. And it raises the question: Why have special elections at all? The obvious answer: It’s better to have a little bit of democracy than none at all.
We face two choices when politicians leave their seats early: Have an election to fill out the remainder of the term, or let someone appoint a successor. Massachusetts has done it both ways. Before 2004, governors had the right to fill the empty seat, a system that seemed sensible to the Democratic-dominated legislature as long as the governor in question was a Democrat. But with John Kerry the 2004 presidential nominee and Republican Mitt Romney the governor, suddenly the old ways didn’t seem that good. No one observing the process thought this anything but an unprincipled political ploy, but the genesis of the change notwithstanding, it was the right result.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states still let governors make the appointments; Massachusetts is now one of just 14 with some version of a special election. The tight-fisted don’t especially care for them. Elections, with poll workers and police officers at each precinct, can be expensive.
Still, that’s only money. The real problem with special elections is turnout. It’s not only low but it’s skewed — it’s unrepresentative of the population at large. The result we get represents less the will of the majority than the will of those who bother to show up.
Voting isn’t some secret ritual that only a few have divined. Last year’s long lines proved that; 65 percent of Bay State voters made it to the polls, drawn in by the presidential race as well as the close contest between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown. But when there aren’t a lot of contests on the ballot or if media attention is lacking, turnout declines. People need to feel engaged to make it to the polls and this year, it seems, they do not.
When John Kerry resigned Feb. 1, political cognoscenti were salivating over the upcoming contest. But the race never got momentum. February’s blizzard shut down the state. Tom Menino’s late March announcement that he would not be running for a sixth term dominated political chatter for two weeks. And just as that buzz was dying down — and at the moment one would have expected people to start focusing upon the matter at hand — the Marathon bombings so consumed attention that the election seem to disappear.
A special shout-out should also be given to the national Democratic Party, which exerted extraordinary pressure to clear the field for Representative Ed Markey. It was shameful and anti-democratic but for the most part worked; logical candidates such as Representative Michael Capuano ended up bowing out. To his credit, Representative Stephen Lynch didn’t, but the damage was done: by portraying the primary as a done deal, the party helped turn it into a non-event.
The result? The folks who vote in today’s primaries will be the regulars and the party stalwarts, those pushed to the polls by each campaign’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Senior citizens will get rides. Union leaders will make sure their members vote. But a lot of others, occupied with work or family, won’t show up.
Still, the solution to bad elections isn’t no elections. It’s better elections. The final election, scheduled for June 25, may well be more hotly contested in any event, assuming the events of the last few months are not be repeated. There is, as well, a lot we can do to boost voter turnout: allow early voting, hold balloting over several days, provide simple access to absentee ballots, and even — if it can be made secure — permit online voting. And, of course, it would be nice too if national political parties backed off and stopped trying to stifle local competition.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.