an agenda for political reform in Massachusetts

Today at the Boston Foundation, MassINC & Tisch College released our report on reforming state government in Massachusetts.

The major theme is that a small number of people who lack the diversity of our state dominate the process of governance, which includes voting, running for office, assessing problems and possible solutions, consulting stakeholders, and building coalitions.

State government is very powerful because of a lack of county governments and weak home-rule for our cities. Within the legislature, especially in the House, power is strongly concentrated in the leadership.

Strong leadership is not necessarily problematic, and it is typical of large legislative bodies, such as our House. But centralized control is problematic if the leadership lacks diversity. In our case, of the 76 legislators who hold leadership positions, four are people of color.

And centralized control is problematic if people outside the center lack the capacity to play their own important roles in governance In our case, most state representatives employ just one staffer–not enough to play a meaningful role in legislating. The parties are shells, employing very few people. And state and local newspapers are near collapse.

As solutions, we propose:

1. Synchronize state and local elections. Holding local elections in odd years dramatically reduces turnout leading to an electorate that is unrepresentative and vulnerable to influence by special interests. To attract more voters, Massachusetts should follow other cities and states that have moved municipal contests to even years.

2. Provide public funds for candidates and parties. Public financing increases the racial, economic, and gender diversity of those running for office. Massachusetts should join a growing number of cities and states that provide public funding to both candidates and parties.

3. Increase the capacity of the whole legislature to legislate. All legislators should have the capacity to consult with citizens and experts, analyze legislative proposals, develop their own proposals, and build coalitions. Massachusetts should follow the practice of 46 states and create a research office to provide nonpartisan analysis of pending legislation. The Legislature should also provide rank-and-file legislators with more professional staff and ensure that they are adequately compensated.

4. Invest in the press. Concerted effort is needed to find new business models for state and local news. The legislature should act expediently on pending legislation that would establish a commission to examine policy options to ensure that residents in all of our communities have access to quality state and local news.

We also endorse civic education, lowering the voting age, Ranked-Choice Voting, Election Day Registration, and the Citizens Initiative Review.

Read the whole thing here. It can be cited as: Peter Levine, Benjamin Forman & Laurel Bliss, MassForward: Advancing Democratic Innovation and Electoral Reform in Massachusetts (Boston: MassINC, 2019)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.