Monday, May 16, 2011

Credit where it's due

Readers of a nervous disposition should steel themselves: I am about to pay the Republicans a compliment, and not the back-handed variety. The following compliment in no way absolves the Republicans of responsibility for denying both the patriotism of their opponents and the reality of climate change; for their attempts at disabling the EPA while enabling the deranged, delusional birthers; for denying public funding to public broadcasting; for subpoenaing labor-studies professors for studying labor; for toadying to oil moguls while stripping seniors of medical insurance; and for likening anything that looks even vaguely like universal healthcare to incipient communism, blatant fascism, or both. With that caveat, I now proffer my compliment. Well done, Republicans, for fielding more than 80 candidates for the Massachusetts House of Representatives in last year’s legislative elections.

For about ten years I have been complaining about the opposition-shaped gap in Massachusetts politics, pointing to the paucity of Republican legislative candidates as evidence of the party’s pusillanimity. Over the course of a decade I grew fond of telling audiences that in the national league of contested elections, Massachusetts ranked 49th out of 50, just one up from North Carolina or sometimes Alabama. It was one of my favorite lines, suitable for almost any occasion. Whatever solution I was hawking – proportional representation, public campaign financing, voting Green – I could always count on the Massachusetts GOP for the problem. But now the Republicans are back in the active-opposition business, and I shall have to come up with new material.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of districts with more than one name on the ballot dwindled to around 30%. That really was quite anemic, I think you’ll agree. Things picked up a little in 2004, when John Kerry ran for President and then-Governor Mitt Romney – in an effort to keep Massachusetts Democrats busy in their home state and out of swinging (in the electoral sense) New Hampshire – persuaded a host of Republican legislative candidates to offer themselves up in a mass martyrdom mission.

With his money, good looks, and box-office appeal Mitt Romney inspired local Republicans. Or he begged, berated, and bludgeoned them, depending on who you talk to. Either way, in 2004 he helped put more Republican names on the ballot than the electorate had seen for years. Then Romney moved on to a bigger stage, leaving the GOP crowd bereft. The role of square-jawed leading man did not lie vacant for long, however.

Like Dean Cain succeeding George Reeves as Superman, Scott Brown took over from Mitt Romney as the man who could inspire relatively large numbers of Republicans to run for seats in the General Court (a feat no less impressive than seeing through solid objects and bending steel bars). Scott Brown’s special election victory at the beginning of the year reminded them that in a state where 50% of the voters are unenrolled, Republicans actually can win, even though 90% of the state legislators and 100% of their federal counterparts are Democrats. Of course, it helps when 45% of the voters stay home on election day, as they did on January 19, 2010.

Scott Brown has worked wonders for democracy in Massachusetts. Yes, he is a climate-change denialist who voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the environment. And yes, he wailed like a baby when the League of Women Voters pointed this out (judging by his ads you’d think they’d waylaid him in a dark alley, mussed his hair, and given him noogies). But it is Scott Brown we can thank for the novel sight of the letter R on ballots in half the state’s House districts last fall.

Having praised the Republicans, I now have no qualms about congratulating my own party – the Green Rainbow Party (GRP) – for its performance in the 2010 legislative elections. Scott Laugenour in the Fourth Berkshire District, facing a popular and diligent Democratic incumbent, walked away with 18%, a more than respectable basis for his next effort. Meanwhile, in the neighboring Third Berkshire District, the Green-Rainbow Party’s Mark Miller took an astonishing 45% of the votes. This is worth restating for emphasis: The Green candidate won 45% of the votes.

These results from the Berkshires are impressive, but they are not victories, and I am not going to blow them out of proportion. However, “proportion” is a word that comes to mind in this situation, together with the word “representation.” Countries with proportional representation reward political parties with seats in the legislature in return for much less than 18% of the votes, let alone 45%.

When they appear on the ballot, Greens in Massachusetts win a higher proportion of the votes than Greens in most European countries, even countries where Greens are not simply opposition backbenchers but partners in coalition governments. What the GRP results in the Berkshires suggest is that if Massachusetts had a fairer electoral system, the Greens would have no difficulty winning seats in the Legislature.

But, of course, Massachusetts has the same voting system it has had since 1855, namely plurality voting in single-member districts, and Greens have to play by the rules as they are, not as we would like them to be. Yet even within the constraints of the current voting system, Greens can win. For example, in 2002, John Eder of the Maine Green Party won a seat in the state legislature and held on to it for two terms. Yes, the voters of Portland, Maine, using the same voting system we use in Massachusetts, elected a Green. It happened, and it can happen again.

Now the Republicans are running and winning, it may only be a couple of cycles until they erode the Democratic supermajority, leaving the two major parties with a roughly equal number of seats in the House. In that situation, just one or two seats would put the GRP in a pivotal position, holding the balance of power. In other words, an ongoing Republican resurgence in Massachusetts could be good news for Greens.  Hence the compliment.

No comments: