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Why The Protection Of Incumbents Hurts Beacon Hill’s Reach For Equality

The Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

When the state Legislature gavels in next year, it will include the most women ever elected in Massachusetts — 29 percent of the total.

Despite this step toward equality, the body remains far from parity, and many of the barriers to change are as high as ever. Some barriers are economic and cultural, but many stem from the way our electoral system functions.

In Massachusetts, our political system functions as a reelection machine, set up to keep officeholders in power. Since a vastly disproportionate number of those officeholders are white men, the reality is the rules favor the reelection of white men and thwart progress toward equality. Rules and practices that give incumbents an advantage over challengers are an unmistakable form of structural racism and sexism. Prior to this year’s elections, the Legislature was 91 percent white, compared to 72 percent of the population. (Updated figures are not yet available, but they are little changed.)

For Massachusetts to get to where the Legislature looks more like the state, lots of people and groups have roles to play. The common thread is this: The cost of reaching equality is the lessening of power and access for those who already have it.

The biggest job is reserved for those it will hurt the most — incumbents themselves. They are the ones who would have to eliminate the rules that help keep them in office. The rules function such that competition is minimized, and the rare challenger faces arbitrary hurdles. It’s no accident that Massachusetts has had the least competitive legislative elections in the country in recent cycles.

Changing this means a hard look at the rules that serve little purpose but to perpetuate incumbency. That means looking at built-in incumbent fundraising advantages, the state primary date, partisan district boundaries, preferential ballot ordering and more. Massachusetts is the only state where incumbents’ names are required to be listed first on the ballot, along with their status as an incumbent.

These structures and practices that have been built up around the reelection of current officeholders contribute to systemic inequality. Surely, many of them were not built up explicitly to keep women and minority candidates out of power. But this is undeniably a byproduct, and fighting structural inequality requires rules that advantage incumbents are eliminated. It is not possible to simultaneously favor more women and people of color in office and value incumbency and longevity. They are mutually exclusive.

Reaching equality requires those with access and power to give up a piece of their built-in advantage for the good of the whole.

The need for action goes beyond just changing these rules. Donors, interest groups and other elected leaders also have roles to play. In each case, the prescription is the same: Making decisions based on incumbency or longevity perpetuates inequality.

For interest groups seeking to maintain access, it’s been very good math to stick with the incumbent. They are reelected at overwhelming rates and hold real power over issues at stake. The result is usually an avalanche of endorsements for an incumbent, while the challenger is all but frozen out. Any number of examples illustrate this, including organizations endorsing incumbents over candidates who would really be a better fit for their interests.

For donors, the structure is the same as is the prescription. If your policy or practice is to give to the incumbent because they already hold sway, you are doing yourself a favor by improving your odds of holding onto your access. You are also contributing to a system built on structural racism and sexism, giving incumbents a reliably huge edge in fundraising. While not always decisive, fundraising advantages are linked to reelection rates.

Politics is traditionally built on relationships, which makes the calculus similarly difficult for other politicians. It’s all but expected that an elected official will base his or her endorsement on long-standing relationships and past favors rather than the virtue of a given candidate. Those with power should recognize the insidious impact of this practice when supporting fellow incumbents.

It’s understandable for those seeking access to hope a diverse field of candidates finds a level playing field somewhere else. But reaching equality requires those with access and power to give up a piece of their built-in advantage for the good of the whole. Pie in the sky? Perhaps. But there can be no mistake, valuing incumbency and longevity perpetuates the current power structure and pushes the quest for equality to another day.

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Steve Koczela Twitter Contributor
Steve Koczela is the president of The MassINC Polling Group and has overseen WBUR's polling since 2011.

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