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Massachusetts can lead democracy back from the brink

How the state can inject new life into its politics — and save the wayward Republican Party.

H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff

Massachusetts politics is in a bad place.

With popular Republican Governor Charlie Baker due to step down in January, a gaggle of cartoonish conspiracy theorists are doing their best to steer the state’s GOP into irrelevance.

The party’s leading candidate for governor, Trump-endorsed Geoff Diehl, doesn’t stand a chance.

And the contest for the Democratic nomination for governor is no contest at all, with Attorney General Maura Healey having cleared the field.

Gubernatorial races are where we are supposed to debate the big issues. But there is no debate to speak of. Nothing on the housing crisis, or crime, or charter schools, or Massachusetts’ public transit woes.


And the timing is terrible.

With Washington mired in deep dysfunction and the Supreme Court pushing the nation’s most vital questions to the states, robust local debate has never been more important — here and in every state capitol.

Trouble is, state governments all over the country are retreating into red and blue corners.

As they become more doctrinaire, they are turning on one another — engaging in brutal interstate combat over abortion and immigration and democracy itself, exacerbating our dangerous polarization.

It’s time for something different. Something less scary. More vibrant.

And Massachusetts, the cradle of American democracy, should take the lead.

We have the resources and creativity to conjure a new model. To change the machinery of elections and government. To build a more open, creative politics.

While there is no guarantee that the rest of the country would follow our lead, we still ought to try. Sparking a democratic reformation in even one or two other states would be an important step toward renewal.

And renewal is what we need.

Democracy redesigned

There is a saying on Beacon Hill that the state Legislature’s GOP caucus could fit inside a phone booth.

Truth is, one booth wouldn’t be enough. But a few would do.


There are just three Republicans in the 40-member Senate and 27 in the 160-member House.

And while GOP legislators should be in the minority in deep-blue Massachusetts, their paltry numbers don’t come close to reflecting the will of the public.

This is a state where one in three voters routinely cast ballots for Republicans.

Left-leaning voters are similarly underrepresented in deep-red states; pity the Alabama Democrat. And one way to fix the problem is to get rid of a staple of American governance known as the single-member legislative district.

Most of us can’t imagine choosing more than a single state senator or state representative or member of the US House of Representatives when we mark our ballots.

But we haven’t always done it that way.

In the early days of the Republic, voters in some states elected several representatives at a time. A handful of states have a version of multimember districts in place today. And most of the world’s democracies use the system, too.

For good reason.

Under the kind of single-member system that prevails in Massachusetts, a state senate district that votes in line with state trends — two-thirds Democrat and one-third Republican — puts the Democrat in office and leaves the sizable share of voters who wanted a GOP senator with no representation at all.

Not very democratic.

If that same district elected three legislators instead of one and distributed the vote proportionally, it would send two Democrats and one Republican to the state Senate — better reflecting the voters’ wishes.


This sort of system could solve many of the other problems plaguing American democracy, too.

Gerrymandering — the practice of twisting the shape of legislative districts to advantage one party over another — is a major factor in the polarization of our politics. When districts are rendered “safe” for Democrats or Republicans, the only election that matters is the dominant party’s primary — and politicians are incentivized to cater to the partisans who cast the bulk of the ballots.

But gerrymandering becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, with multimember districts.

They also give racial minorities a much better shot at representation.

A single-member district that is one-quarter or one-third Black may never get a Black representative. But in a multimember district, Black voters can make the delegation one-quarter or one-third Black if they choose.

Multimember districts would provide a substantial opening for third parties, too.

With three or five people getting the nod in each district, the Green Party would have a real chance to build power on the left. And the never-Trump crowd could create a new center-right party.

That’s more choice for voters, more interesting coalitions in the State House, and more robust debate on the issues.

Only Congress could approve multimember districts at the federal level, so that will have to wait. But Massachusetts could alter its own state Legislature if it chooses.

That might require an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution — a steep climb, no doubt. But hardly insurmountable.


Brochures in the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage explain changes taking effect this year. Alaska is scrapping party primaries and sending the top four vote-getters, regardless of party, to the general election, where ranked-choice voting will be used to determine a winner.Mark Thiessen/Associated Press

Another reform that could invigorate Massachusetts democracy is ranked-choice voting.

Rather than pick a single candidate, voters would be able to rank their preferences. And in a standard single-member, winner-take-all district, a candidate who got more than half of the first-choice votes would win.

If no one got a clear majority, there would be an “instant runoff”: The candidate with the least number of votes would be tossed out, and the voters who selected that candidate as their top choice would have their second-choice votes distributed among the remaining candidates.

The process would repeat itself until one candidate got a majority of the votes and was declared the winner.

Here in Massachusetts, Cambridge voters have used a version of ranked choice since 1941. Easthampton adopted the system more recently. And several other cities and towns are considering it. Nationwide, some 11 million voters in 55 cities, counties, and states, including New York City, Maine, and Alaska, select candidates using ranked choice.

The system eliminates concerns about “wasting” votes on independent or third-party candidates. If a voter’s first-choice candidate doesn’t make the cut, his or her second choice will count.

That gives upstart parties a real opportunity to gain a foothold — especially if ranked choice is paired with multimember districts.

Two years ago, Massachusetts voters had a chance to approve a system of ranked-choice voting for many of the state’s most important offices — the Legislature, county offices, statewide offices like governor and attorney general, and Congress.


They shied away in the end — the final vote was 51 percent against and 43 percent in favor.

But advocates say they never really had a chance to make their case.

“The pandemic totally halted our ability to organize,” says Evan Falchuk, a health care executive and former third-party candidate for governor who chaired the campaign. “With a reform like ranked-choice voting, you need to spend a lot of time with voters . . . getting them to understand why it actually helps them and gives them more choices and opens up the system to independent voices.”

Supporters say voters who understand the system — which sounds complicated at first blush but really isn’t — almost universally support it.

What’s not to like about more choice?

Advocates can go back to the ballot as soon as 2026. And they say they plan to do so that year, or not long after.

Other reforms, like an independent redistricting commission to curb gerrymandering or a shift to California-style “jungle” primaries — where the candidates from every party compete in the first round of voting, with the top two or top four advancing to a final round — could do even more to open up Massachusetts politics and make it more dynamic.

All of these provisions are in place in various parts of the country. But they only amount to a patchwork at the moment. The opportunity for Massachusetts is to put them all together and build something truly transformative — not just a more robust politics, but a more civil politics. The kind that could pull the nation back from the brink.

Grant Tudor, a policy advocate with Protect Democracy, a nonprofit that aims to stop the country from sliding toward a more authoritarian kind of democracy, says our winner-take-all elections have helped create a dangerous binary.

Democrat or Republican. Right or wrong.

In this kind of system, “you want to crush the opposition, no matter the cost,” Tudor says. “If your only two options are support your guy, no matter how extreme, or join the opposing team, you’re going to support your guy.”

An open democracy with more choices would provide escape valves. If moderate Republicans could vote for more center-right candidates, if progressives could elect more Greens — if everyone felt better represented — some of the vitriol and frustration overwhelming American politics would subside.

Indeed, research shows, for instance, that in countries with multimember districts, there is less animosity among partisans.

Lee Drutman, author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multi-Party Democracy in America,” has argued that this relative peace may have something to do with a multiparty democracy’s shifting coalitions. Few enemies are permanent.

“This also echoes something social psychologists have found in running experiments on group behavior: Breaking people into three groups instead of two leads to less animosity,” he wrote in an essay for FiveThirtyEight. “Something, in other words, appears to be unique about the binary condition, or in this case, the two-party system, that triggers the kind of good-vs-evil, dark-vs-light, us-against-them thinking that is particularly pronounced in the US.

“Ultimately,” he wrote, “the more binary the party system, the stronger the out-party hatred.”

Reviving the GOP

Absent big structural change, the only path forward is reviving the state’s GOP. And that’s going to be a challenge.

Look no further than this spring’s state party convention, which devolved into a carnival of conspiracy theories and cultish devotion.

Trump’s “border czar,” Thomas Homan, led the crowd in a chant of “Trump! Trump! Trump!”

The Republican candidate for secretary of state, Rayla Campbell, called Democrats “rotten devils” and suggested that the state’s public schools are teaching 5-year-olds to perform oral sex on other kids.

But if Trumpists have a grip on the GOP apparatus, it’s tenuous.

Geoff Diehl (left) and Jim Lyons (center) are among the leaders of the GOP in Massachusetts as Governor Charlie Baker (right) prepares to leave office.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff; Tim Jean/The Eagle-Tribune via AP; Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The party’s bombastic chairman, Jim Lyons, only narrowly won reelection in January.

And the GOP’s small band of elected officials is much more Yankee Republican — fiscally conservative, with a focus on public safety — than finger-in-the-eye populist.

There is an opportunity, in other words, for a pushback against Trumpism. And a successful effort here could yield lessons for moderate Republicans in other states.

But winning the fight for the soul of the Massachusetts GOP will only do so much.

Even a less Trumpy party will have trouble making substantial gains in the state Legislature given the constraints of our winner-take-all electoral system.

The best hope for the state GOP, then, is finding a way to win the governor’s office again in 2026 or 2030.

And if the party is able to do that, it will send a powerful message.

Baker won his first term as governor of Massachusetts before the rise of Trump. Seizing the governor’s office post-Trump, in the bluest of blue states, would be something else — suggesting expanded possibility for a GOP that has come to rely on an ever-narrowing slice of white conservative voters in the most rural states in the country.

Victory here could be a blow for moderation in a national politics that needs it.

Something more

Although restoring bipartisanship in a state like Massachusetts is a worthy goal, we should aim higher.

The regime of moderate Republican governor and Democratic-dominated legislature that we’ve had in place for the last eight years has been a model of civility, in many ways. But that can’t be the only measure.

Results matter.

Baker and state lawmakers have had some successes; a law designed to encourage more multifamily housing in suburbia, for instance, was a serious effort to tackle a serious problem.

But the housing and transit and climate crises are more acute now than they were in 2015. Our urban schools are still struggling mightily.

And Washington’s failure to deliver solutions after a historic election has raised the stakes for Beacon Hill.

Rebuilding a staid two-party system will not do. We need something more dynamic. More in tune with the inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit of the state. We need the open multiparty system that can only come with serious electoral reform.

Perhaps a new center-left party, less beholden to the teachers unions than Democratic Party regulars, could join with center-right and conservative lawmakers to push through a long-sought expansion of Massachusetts’ successful charter school sector.

Maybe a charismatic Green Party leader could build momentum for a big investment in the MBTA, rallying Democrats and pro-business Republicans eager for a more reliable service for customers and employees.

Multiparty systems have their drawbacks, no doubt. Shifting alliances can lead to instability in a legislature. But we could use a shake-up.

And so could the country.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him @dscharfGlobe.