Massachusetts government is stubbornly unrepresentative

Report calls on Legislature to remedy structural forces that keep women, people of color, and Republicans from winning elected office

A new report by the nonpartisan think tank MassINC demonstrates that elected leaders in Massachusetts fail to represent the state’s diversity, the capacity to make laws and policy is far too concentrated in a few leaders, and limited electoral competition, declining state and local news coverage, and the absence of a strong opposition party weaken accountability. The report makes the case for synchronizing local and state elections to raise turnout, providing candidates and parties with public funds, enhancing the legislature’s capacity, and investing in the press.

The report shows that the make-up of elected leaders in Massachusetts does not reflect the full diversity of residents by race, ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation. The researchers point to several structural causes and argue that unbalanced representation is increasingly problematic.

The findings include:

  • White residents are overrepresented by about 16 percentage points in the Massachusetts legislature, while Asian, African-American, and Latino residents are significantly underrepresented. To achieve representative balance by race and ethnicity, the 200-member legislature would need an additional 31 members of color.
  • Women hold less than 29 percent of the seats in the legislature, a share that has hardly moved over the past two decades. Massachusetts now ranks 27th in gender representation, down from 18th in 2009. To achieve balanced representation by gender, the 200-member legislature would need an additional 47 female members.
  • Of the 76 members who hold leadership posts or committee chairs, just four are people of color (two Democrats and two Republicans). Only 24 percent of members with leadership posts or committee chairs are female.
  • Republicans and voters who lean Republican make up 27 percent of voters in Massachusetts, yet just 20 percent of state legislators. To reflect the partisan values of the voters, the 200-member legislature would need an additional 16 Republican members.

The report also examines the elected leadership in the state’s increasingly diverse Gateway Cities and finds this group of public officials is far less diverse than the constituents they represent. In Fitchburg, for instance, people of color make up more than one-third of all residents, but just 5 percent of elected officials. The disparities are even larger in Brockton (64 percent of residents vs. 8 percent of elected officials) and Lowell (50 percent of residents vs. 17 percent of elected officials).

The study also draws attention to the practice of centralizing power in the legislature’s leaders. Centralization is not necessarily a recipe for poor governance, particularly since the Massachusetts House of Representatives is one of the largest in the country, and this especially large membership calls for greater coordination. However, the centralization of power is concerning when the leadership team is unrepresentative of the state’s diversity and rank-and-file legislators are not well equipped to play roles in lawmaking or legislative oversight. Most House members have just one staff person to handle constituent matters and stay abreast of legislative activity.

Electoral competition helps hold legislative leaders accountable, but Massachusetts consistently ranks last or nearly last on measures of electoral competitiveness for state legislatures. In 2018—a year heralded for new energy in electoral politics—only one-third of the seats in the legislature were contested in the general election, and fewer than half of the seats were contested in either the general or the primary. Insiders also have major advantages when seats do change hands. Nearly one-quarter of state representatives and over one-third of state senators currently holding office first entered the legislature through a special election. Held on short notice, these extremely low-turnout contests provide considerable advantage to those with established political connections.

Minimal state and local news coverage and the decline of the Republican party add to the dearth of accountability.

The report advances four strategies to address these problems:

  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 expeditiously 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.


ABOUT MASSINC: The Massachusetts Institute for the New Commonwealth (MassINC) is an independent think tank and the publisher of CommonWealth magazine. Our mission is to stimulate nonpartisan debate, shape public policy and advance a public agenda that supports the growth of the middle class. MassINC achieves impact through nonpartisan research from our Policy Center and Polling Group, independent reporting of politics, ideas, and civic life from CommonWealth magazine, and inclusive civic engagement

Meet The Author

Llyr Johansen

Communications Director, MassINC

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