Ever since Democrats in the Legislature tried to manipulate the rules of Senate succession to prevent Governor Mitt Romney from having the power to appoint a successor to John Kerry, back when Kerry was the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, the state has been filling vacancies through a special election 145-160 days after a senator’s death or resignation. That’s not enough time for a meaningful campaign; Tuesday’s record-low voter turnout — under 28 percent of registered voters, according to preliminary tallies — was a sign of just how unsatisfying these quickie campaigns can be.
At first glance, it might seem that four to five months is a decent amount of time for a campaign. After all, voters routinely express frustration over the length of most election seasons. That would make sense if the candidates themselves had a longer ramp-up time — time to develop positions on issues, get to know potential constituents in an unpressured way, and raise donations before engaging in a concentrated 160-day contest. As it stands now, though, potential contenders must put together a campaign on the fly and then jump into debates without a lot of time to prepare. It rules out the kind of grass-roots candidacy that Deval Patrick ran in preparation for the 2006 gubernatorial race, and gives enormous advantages to candidates who are either long established in other offices or have enough personal wealth to seed their own campaigns.
This year’s primary contest was beset by a blizzard near its beginning, marginalized in the middle by a momentous mayoral announcement, then brought to a standstill in the final days by the Marathon bombing. It never got the attention from the public that a contest for such an important office deserves. The general election campaign was a little sharper, but never moved beyond the basic dynamic established at the beginning: veteran liberal versus centrist newcomer. Ed Markey didn’t have to do much beyond stick to his talking points; Gabriel Gomez never had a chance to grow into a stronger candidate.
Before 2004, Massachusetts followed the longstanding practice, shared by many states, of having the governor appoint a senator to fill a vacancy until the next federal election. Since 1961, when John F. Kennedy left the Senate to assume the presidency, Massachusetts governors have chosen interim senators with no intention of running for the permanent seat. That tradition should continue.
Now, with no senatorial opening on the horizon, the Legislature should go back to the drawing board and create a better system, starting with the proposition that the general election voting day needs to be at the traditional time, in November. Adopting well-reasoned rules soon — long before the next vacancy occurs — will reassure voters that the change isn’t being made for partisan ends.
The vast gap between the 2012 turnout — 73 percent — and last Tuesday’s 28 percent suggests that scheduling the Senate election at the regular time, with a longer ramp-up, can create a more engaging campaign. Even the spirited 2010 special election between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley — an election that galvanized the political world, not because of the candidates but because of what it portended for President Obama’s health bill — drew only 54 percent turnout. Massachusetts can do better.