From 2010-2020, there were 1,507 seats that were on the ballot. Let’s look at all of the parties that were regarded as official by the Commonwealth – they had lines on the ballot and the state conducted primaries.
Republicans Of the 1,507 seats:
No candidate filed: 917 (60.8%)
Uncontested (one candidate): 502 (33.3%)
Two candidates: 72 (4.8%)
Three or more candidates: 15 (1.0%) Seven of these races were for U.S. Senate or U.S. Representative.
In the primaries with three or more candidates, five candidates cleared 50% in the primary, and one state representative candidate went on to being elected.
Of the ten candidates that won their primary with less than 50% of the vote, only two state representative candidates were elected in November.
Libertarians were an official party in 2010, 2018, and 2020. They had the opportunity to run candidates for 760 seats during those three years. In 2018, they had two candidates file for a place on the primary ballot: State Auditor and Governors’ Council in the 5th District.
Green-Rainbows were an official party in 2012, 2016, and 2020. They had the opportunity to run candidates for 730 seats during those three years. They had five candidates for state representative file for a place on the primary ballot: 4th Berkshire (2012), 5th Hampden (2012), 14th Middlesex (2016), 12th Worcester (2016 and 2020).
The United Independent party gained a place on the 2016 ballot, after Evan Falchuk created the party for his 2014 run for governor. They had 234 opportunities to field candidates in 2016 and
0 candidates only one candidate filed for one of their ballot slots. (Correction, October 4.)
Democrats Of the 1,507 seats:
No candidate filed: 140 (9.3%)
Uncontested (one candidate): 1,040 (69.0%)
Two candidates: 208 (13.8%)
Three or more candidates: 119 (7.9%) In the primaries with three or more candidates, 45 candidates cleared 50% in the primary. Of the 74 primary winners with less than 50% of the vote:
- 7 were in 2020; outcome to be decided in November, but 5 are running unopposed in the general election.
- 36 won because they were uncontested in the general election.
- 20 won with 55 percent or more in the general election
- 5 won with less than 50% of the vote in the general election
The conclusion is that 61 of the 74 Democratic primary winners with less than 50% of the vote advanced to uncontested or noncompetitive primaries. If you exclude the Auchincloss primary, only 12 of the plurality vote winners moved on to competitive general elections in November.
What does this all mean?
When I first moved to Massachusetts, unenrolled voters (those not enrolled in a political party) were able to go to the polls and enroll in a party on election day and vote in the primary. There was a bit of fiction attached to this, as voters could drop their ballot in the machine and immediately go to a table and unenroll from the party. Voters became Democrats or Republicans for a few short minutes, just long enough to cast a ballot.
The law was changed in the 1990s, and unenrolled voters can now simply request a ballot in the party of their choice. As a result, unenrolled voters grew to a majority in 2008. Currently, 57.0% of Massachusetts voters are unenrolled, 32.1% are enrolled as Democrats, 9.9% are enrolled as Republicans, 0.4% are enrolled as Libertarians, and 0.08% are enrolled as members of the Green-Rainbow party.
Steve Koczela and Hannah Chanatry wrote of the impact of the unenrolled voters in a 2017 article in Commonwealth Magazine.
In the 2016 presidential election, 66 percent of voters in the Massachusetts Republican primary were unenrolled, not an unusual total in the few recent primaries the party has managed to muster. On the Democratic side, registered partisans made up a bare, 57 percent majority. If registration trends continue as they have been, the day may not be far off when the majority of voters in both primaries will be unenrolled. https://commonwealthmagazine.org/politics/its-not-my-party-but-ill-vote-if-i-want-to/
This makes sense, particularly for Republican-leaning voters. If the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election, voters who are enrolled as Republicans are locked out of the Democratic primary and the ability to choose their elected representatives. Unenrolled status makes the voter a free agent in the primary.
Given the fluidity of voters, it makes no sense to give one line on the ballot to each party.
In practical terms, the entry of Republican-leaning unenrolled voters into the Democratic primary has resulted in electing a state legislature filled with moderate to conservative Democrats. Where Republican candidates are unopposed in their primaries, the only primary game in town for Republican leaning unenrolled voters is to move into the Democratic primary and influence that outcome. An even bigger problem is when unenrolled Republican leaning undecided voters have uncontested candidates on the primary ballot, and with no reason to pull a GOP ballot with no choices, these conservative voters can pull a Democratic ballot, defeat the more progressive candidate in the Democratic primary, and return to the GOP fold in November.
Ranked choice won’t fix this problem; however a blanket primary where everyone gets the same ballot, with candidates from all parties, would draw the Republican leaning undecided voter to the Republican on the blanket primary ballot. In doing so, the top two would result in draining primary support from the more conservative Democrat, enabling a more progressive Democrat to have a greater chance of advancing to the November ballot. From 2010-2018, in 113 (8.9%) out of 1270 races, the Democratic primary eliminated all competition, placing an uncontested Democrat on the ballot.
When Republican-leaning unenrolled voters have a choice between a Republican primary ballot with no candidates, their only ability to vote in the primary is with a Democratic ballot. In this instance, the conservatives in the Democratic primary are able to eliminate a more progressive Democrat, resulting in an uncontested election.
Since 2010, five parties had 1,717 unoccupied places on the ballot since 2010., and five candidates on the ballot. Plurality voting isn’t preventing them from fielding candidates; in fact, Ranked Choice will make it more difficult for them to win. With Ranked Choice, they need to gain an absolute majority, rather than squeaking into office with a small plurality of a split vote.
The bottom line: Over the past decade 70.1% of the 1,507 seats up for election lacked either a Democrat or a Republican on the ballot. 89 out of 3,014 Republican and Democratic primaries would have triggered a Ranked Choice count, and 61 went on to uncontested or marginally contested races in November.
We don’t have a proposal to address the real problem, uncontested elections. We have a Ranked Choice ballot question because a Texas Enron hedge fund billionaire dropped $3 million into a campaign that spent $274,356 to collect the signatures required to get on the ballot. Attaching Ranked Choice to a September primary has the potential for creating chaos.
Question 2? No, thank you. I don’t take antihistamines for a sprained ankle, and I won’t vote for Ranked Choice voting to fix our broken system of uncontested elections. I’ll wait to support a solution that will actually fix the problems that plague our elections.