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OPINION

Want to vex a legislative leader? Ask about a spring primary.

Massachusetts should adopt this voter-friendly reform.

Primary Day in Boston in 2021.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It’s a change that would boost political challengers and diminish the advantages of incumbency, so it’s no surprise it hasn’t happened in Massachusetts.

In fact, if you want to send a legislative leader skittering into his or her gopher hole, just ask about it.

That nostrum? A move to a spring primary.

Spring is when most states hold their primaries. This year in Indiana, Hoosiers will cast their primary choices on May 3. In Oregon and Pennsylvania, voters will pick their primary nominees on May 17. New Jersey takes its primary vote on June 7, while New Yorkers head to the primary polls on June 28.

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In total, 29 states will hold their primaries in May or June. (In several states, a runoff, if necessary, occurs a month or two later.)

But not in Massachusetts. Bay State voters don’t get to choose their respective party nominees until Sept. 6. Only three states have later dates. Then it will be a mad two-month-and-two-day dash to the Nov. 8 general election.

This state election cycle demonstrates just how counterproductive our current schedule is. The competitive primary races for governor kicked off relatively late this time around. On the Democratic side, what contest there will be only really commenced when Attorney General Maura Healey jumped into the race on Jan. 20. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, the only other plausible candidate now in the contest, declared her candidacy in June 2021.

The competitive Republican primary contest, meanwhile, began in late January, when Wrentham businessman Chris Doughty tossed his chapeau into the ring, joining former state representative Geoff Diehl, who declared in early July 2021.

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So: Even in this comparatively late-starting political year, primary voters will have seven-plus months to contemplate the differences between the candidates of the same party — followed by less than a third of that time to choose between the eventual Democratic and Republican nominees.

From a civic point of view, that makes no sense.

Unless, that is, you happen to be an incumbent. Under the existing schedule, challengers from the opposing party have little time to make their case — and voters have a reduced chance to focus on them.

When it comes to the governor’s office, the current calendar doesn’t necessarily impart a long-term advantage to either party, because that high-profile office tends to flip back and forth between parties.

Where you see the real status-quo-sustaining effect is in the Legislature. Once in office, most incumbents don’t face challenges from members of their own party. The only real reelection risk they undergo is in the general election, from a nominee of the opposite party.

A late primary and truncated general election campaign obviously reduce a challenger’s chances to solidify his or her own party and mount an effective campaign against the incumbent. Adding to those difficulties is our relatively low ceiling — $1,000 — on the amount an individual can contribute to any one candidate in any given year. That favors incumbents, who can amass large, competition-chilling campaign war chests over multiple years.

Thus if one is an incumbent, he or she tends to be pretty happy with the current state of affairs.

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To illustrate that point — and to afflict the comfortable — I asked the offices of both Senate President Karen Spilka, who occasionally nods in the direction of reform, and House Speaker Ron Mariano, an insider’s insider, whether they would favor a change to a spring primary.

Suffice it to say that trying to pry a comment from either of those worthies leaves one feeling a little like Adele singing her big 2015 hit: “Hello from the other side. I must’ve called a thousand times!?”

Spilka’s office at least took the trouble to develop a dodge: “Throughout her career, the Senate President has been committed to expanding the right to vote and is currently focused on enshrining popular expanded voting options into law.”

But what about a spring primary? Hello? Hello? It’s no secret that I’m running out of deadline.

None of that deflect or distract nonsense for Mariano! Hell no. That’s not how Beacon Hill good old boys do things. His office simply ignored my query.

Which illustrates the political problem with getting this voter-friendly reform done: The very people who would need to change the system benefit from it.

Unless, that is, voters take matters into their own hands.

How?

Through a ballot question. This would be a great cause for a good-government organization or an intrepid group of reformers hoping to make Massachusetts politics work for voters rather than incumbents.

It’s an idea whose time has come.

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Just not here in Massachusetts, where incumbent protection remains the name of the insiders’ game.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.