THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Yvonne Abraham

Now we can choose

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / June 10, 2010

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Searching for a glimmer of hope amidst cratering retirement savings and exploding health insurance rates?

Check your ballot this fall. There, you will find a phenomenon so rare around here that you may question your sanity or eyesight: multiple candidates running for seats in the Legislature and Congress.

Voting advocates and Republicans are in heaven: All but one of the state’s 10 seats in the US House of Representatives are being contested this year. And a whopping 117 seats in the Legislature are seeing races, a number that Avi Green, executive director of the voter mobilization outfit MassVOTE, figures is 30 percent to 50 percent higher than most years.

Now, some of you may be having trouble wrapping your head around the idea of actual, working, two-party democracy in Massachusetts. And who could blame you?

Almost every year since 1994, Massachusetts elections have been among the least competitive in the nation. In 2008, a year everybody went crazy for politics, we ranked at the very bottom of the country for contested seats in the Legislature.

Years of uncontested elections have turned many of our elective offices into lifetime appointments, making it easy for even our most dedicated representatives to get too comfortable. Seats turned over only when incumbents got bored or more ambitious or old — or arrested.

Some voters see no point in showing up at the polls at all. Vote for incumbent X, and X gets elected. Don’t vote for incumbent X, and X still gets elected. Few of the brave or barmy souls who aspire to political office see the point of running in such an environment.

Such disengagement is disheartening and dangerous. It makes it far too easy to lose sight of the fact that our elected officials are accountable to us and allows them to forget, too. That’s not necessarily because our politicians are bad people. But as any employee knows, you’re more likely to perform at the top of your game when you know you’re going to be evaluated and possibly tossed.

There have been a couple of attempts to air out our musty political culture in recent years. Advocates of a Clean Elections law hoped that allowing candidates to use public funding would draw new blood into the process to challenge incumbents.

Incumbents didn’t like that much. After voters approved a Clean Elections law in 1998, they refused to fund it. Then they killed the law without debate in 2003.

In 2004, Republican governor Mitt Romney vowed to recruit an army of GOP candidates to challenge Democrats, but that went just about nowhere. One notable exception that year: Scott Brown’s victory in a special state Senate election.

It has taken a tanking economy to shift the status quo. When people are uncomfortable, they get mad, and they want to make their legislators uncomfortable. There are a lot of angry people out there right now, not just the Republicans and Tea Partiers who helped send Scott Brown to Washington, but Democrats and liberals, too.

Some of these candidates aren’t my cup of tea, but it’s a joy to see so many of them stepping up, bringing bucketloads of voters along with them. Green, of MassVOTE, believes that turnout may be as high as 2.5 million this November (turnout for this winter’s hotly contested US Senate contest was 2.2 million).

He concedes that even that crashing wave might not radically change the political landscape. “My guess is that in the end, the vast majority of incumbents will probably be reelected,’’ Green says. “But the great thing about politics is, you never know.’’

The other great thing: having choices, at long last.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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