Massachusetts’ Uncontested Elections

by The Editorial Board

The midterms are here. National headlines surround us seemingly everywhere, announcing the gravity of this fall’s elections. Stories of further restrictions to voting rights and fake elector schemes ring of ominous threats to the basic foundation of our democracy. 

In Massachusetts, we can vote by mail without an excuse. In the past year, early voting has expanded, and we are making progress in the fight for bilingual ballots. Our access to democracy seems to be expanding — Massachusetts is not a place you’d think would have a problem.

But Massachusetts does have a problem. Not enough people are running for office. According to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit political encyclopedia, in 2020, Massachusetts was the least competitive state in the United States with 73 percent of seats in political races uncontested. In 2021, the number improved, with 20 percent of primary race seats being uncontested. 

While reviewing the options for this Tuesday’s State Primary election, you might have noticed a smaller-than-usual list of candidates in a year when the whole slate of “constitutional officer” positions are up for election. Most races include just the renominated incumbents defending their positions. 

On our ballots in Newton, the races for State Treasurer, Representative in Congress, Senator in General Court, Representative in General Court, District Attorney and Sheriff were all uncontested. Looking at Massachusetts as a whole, there has been an astounding lack of candidates, even in the most high level races. 

The open race for Governor, as detailed in our “Guide to the State Election” piece on page 4, has just one Democratic candidate, Attorney General Maura Healey, after State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz dropped out earlier this summer. 

Healey is positioned to win handedly in the general election, against either GOP opponent; according to a July Suffolk University poll, she leads each by over 30 points. Before even a primary election, the governor’s race seems to have already been decided.

Without an ample number of competitive candidates, there is no opportunity for discussion and debate, conversations that are central to developing and fighting for our values. 

In debates, voters are able to differentiate candidates and decide what policies are most important to them, voting accordingly. We need voters to feel that they can put their vote behind candidates who accurately represent their values.

Imagine you go to the store to buy cereal. You’d like to have a lot of choice to make sure you are picking the box you really want. Now imagine you get to the cereal aisle and there’s only one option. 

It might be the option you wanted all along, which is great. But it might not be — it might be one you don’t like at all. Then what happens? You could buy the cereal, even though you don’t want it. Or you could choose not to buy cereal at all. 

And when eligible voters opt out of voting in elections, we end up with a state run by those who are already holding the power.

Wins are secured in uncompetitive elections. In the scores of elections for seats without term limits, and without candidates challenging incumbents, voters are unable to hold those in power accountable to their promises and for their actions. These politicians might see this as immunity to enact their own agendas without fear of retribution. 

Perhaps due to our lack of contested elections, Massachusetts has had very low voter turnout in primary elections. While the number is steadily increasing year by year, we still have work to do. According to data from the Secretary of State’s office, in 2016, voter turnout was just 8.84 percent. The number increased to 21.85 and 36.58 percent, respectively, for the 2018 and 2020 primary races. 

As high school students nearing voting age, driving to the polls to exercise our rights is still a novelty. We have to build good habits by voting even in quieter races. 

By turning out to vote, we establish ourselves as an electorate that politicians vie for. We build a strong base, and especially with such low voter turnout, we have more sway over these elections. Fewer votes count for more. 

By turning out to vote, we engage with the electoral process and stay educated about the issues. Especially in smaller, more local races, when the candidates aren’t always in the news, when debates aren’t broadcasted over major television channels, we are forced to do our own research. We learn more about the issues that matter to us, and therefore about the candidates. 

With that knowledge, we can get involved ourselves. We can volunteer on campaigns. In smaller races, we can work closer with the actual candidate. We can propose ideas and see the process up close. We may even get to be a sounding board for that candidate. 

It is important that we have these debates and decide what is important to our state. We need to be turning up for our elections, especially those primaries, and we need to show off our beliefs, so we are well and adequately represented.