Yesterday Massachusetts Representative William Brownsberger won the special election for Senator to replace Democrat Stephen Tolman who had vacated the seat to become president of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts. The district, Second Suffolk and Middlesex is made up of the towns of Belmont and Watertown and parts of the cities of Cambridge and Boston.
Final official results are not yet available, but thanks to two local news outlets (the Watertown TAB and the Boston Herald) which obtained unofficial results from the election officials in the four communities we can do some preliminary analysis.
Representative (soon to be Senator) Brownsberger won with about one-third of the total votes in the four-man race. Since turnout, overall, was about 18 percent, that means that about 6 percent, a little under 5,000 of the approximately 84,000 registered voters in the district voted for the man who will be their senator. Given the history in Massachusetts, where incumbent senators almost never are defeated for re-election, it is safe to say that the man that 6% voted for yesterday will be senator for as long as he wants. Yesterday's election was a Democratic Party primary and under Massachusetts law no one can vote in a party primary if registered as a member of another party. That means yesterday's decision regarding who will represent all voters in the district was restricted to voters who were Democrats or not enrolled in any party.
Republicans were effectively disenfranchised when the Republican Party failed to run any candidate. Green Party voters, likewise, were excluded due to that party's failure to run a candidate. The final election will be in January, but, by law, Mr. Brownsberger's name is the only one permitted on the ballot.
Congratulations to Mr. Brownsberger. You won in a hotly contested race and my analysis is not intended to in any way diminish the significance of your victory.
However, an election in which 5,000 voters decide for 84,000 who will be the senator and in which several thousand registered Republican or Green Party member had, effectively, no vote, points to problems with the system here in Massachusetts.
First SHAME on the Republican Party (and the Green Party) for failing to run any candidate. Why should any voter in this district choose to register in your party when you can't be bothered to run local candidates, leaving your party members with no one to vote for in the primary and the Democratic Party nominee as the only name on the ballot in the general election.
Secondly, this is not an unusual outcome in Massachusetts. The incumbent resigns, there is a special election with multiple candidates in a one party primary resulting in a winner who got a third of the vote in a contest with 20% turnout and voters of the other parties not even having a vote. This is not new in American politics. Back in the days of the "solid South" one party Democratic states of the old confederacy also had multi-candidate Democratic primaries that too frequently yielded winners who got less than half of the vote. In some cases -- I believe Georgia is one of them -- the law was changed so that if the winner got less than 50% there was a mandated run-off election between the top two vote getters. The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts for municipal office uses a system called "single transferable preference voting" which is a mouthful of a phrase that describes a type of automatic run-off. I'm not advocating any particular reform, but, when 6% of the registered voters decide, in a special election, who will likely be the senator for the next decade or more, I think we ought to start at least talking about possible reforms.