A couple of constituents asked after the January 10 special election whether it was really necessary to hold the election, given that, after my December 13 primary win, my name was the only one on the ballot.
I think the answer to that question is yes.
The primary, which occurred on December 13 in my case, is not an election — it is a party mechanism for determining which party member will participate in the election. The law does allow parties to use caucuses as an alternative, but in the Democratic party, we we use primaries. So, the question is whether, when only one party has placed the name of a candidate on the ballot and no independents have put their names on a ballot, there should be an election at all.
The Massachusetts constitution provides in Article VIII:
Article VIII. In order to prevent those, who are vested with authority, from becoming oppressors, the people have a right, at such periods and in such manner as they shall establish by their frame of government, to cause their public officers to return to private life; and to fill up vacant places by certain and regular elections and appointments.
An election by secret ballot is a sacred protection of liberty in our country. If one were to make a practice of canceling elections when there was only one name on the ballot, it would deprive people of the opportunity to conduct write-in campaigns and so reduce opportunities to vote outside the party framework. On January 10, there was, in fact, a write in campaign, although it garnered only a small percentage of the vote.
It’s clear that the constitution permits gubernatorial appointments to fill vacancies and that is the rule for some offices. But unless we wanted to go that system, which would tend to reduce participation and increase patronage in legislative elections, I don’t see an approach that would eliminate the special election.
It is fair to debate when it is right to schedule a special election to fill a vacancy or just leave the position to the next biennial election. In our system, that is a judgment call made by legislative leadership depending on timing and circumstances. Some people oppose all special elections on principle because they tend to have low turnout. However, in the case of this state senate seat, although the election itself was uncontested, the primary was very vigorously contested. The December 13 primary turnout (15,180 votes) was much greater than the turnout than the last regularly scheduled primary in the same district (10, 562) votes. That September 2010 primary did include contested statewide offices; those contests should have tended to push turnout up.
Thanks to the staff of the Election Laws committee for assistance in researching underlying law on the issue.