AN EVER-GROWING WAVE of unenrolled voters is slowly overtaking Massachusetts political parties. Old Massachusetts Democrats and Republicans are dying off and more and more of their grandkids are ditching the two-party structure. As the overall number of voters keeps rising, the percent of undeclared voters climbs, while the share of both Democrats and Republicans shrinks modestly. This gradual change has been underway for several decades now, and shows no signs of letting up.
Unenrolled voters became the largest group in 1990, and an outright majority by 2008. The major parties have continued to dwindle in percentage terms. Among voters 18 to 22, for whom this was their first presidential cycle, just 29 percent are registered Democrats, and 9 percent Republican. With younger voters far less likely to choose a party, the relative share of voters who are unenrolled is likely to continue growing.
The Massachusetts primary system may be at least partly to blame. In some states, voters must register with the party to participate in the party primary. But in Massachusetts, unenrolled voters can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary, simply by choosing that party’s ballot on primary day. Because of this approach, registering for a party confers no benefit other than the opportunity to participate in a few low turnout processes such as party caucuses and nominating conventions. And, in return for this rarely exercised privilege, voters are denied the flexibility to vote in the other party’s primary.
How are party leaders and consultants dealing with the rise of the unenrolled voter? Read here.
For registered Republican voters in Massachusetts, the current system is particularly problematic. They show up on primary day and are typically treated to a chance to endorse the only candidate available for each office, if there is any candidate at all.
The institutions of the party continue to perform critical functions such as nominating candidates, raising funds, and maintaining the legal and organizational infrastructure needed to participate effectively in state and legislative elections. They confer major advantages to candidates over those choosing to go it alone. Third-party runs in Massachusetts tend to yield the chance to participate in a few debates and voter support in the low- to mid-single digits, at best. The highest profile attempt to start a new party ended earlier this year with its founder, Evan Falchuk, throwing in his lot with the Democrats.
Falchuk’s failure to launch, combined with the lack of success of third-party hopefuls, leads to the inescapable conclusion that, for better or worse, the path to elected office is partisan. In addition to the legal, fundraising, and organizational advantages parties offer, candidates also get votes. For many voters, even many who are ostensibly independent, the party label is still the most important feature of a candidate. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump took the easier road, hitching up with parties with which neither of them had much history. Compare their relative success with Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both respected former Republican governors who ditched the two-party system to run for president and vice president, going nowhere.
Parties are the vehicles for putting up successful candidates, but larger and larger shares of the voters voting in state elections are not registered members of any party. In the 2016 presidential election, 66 percent of voters in the Massachusetts Republican primary were unenrolled, not an unusual total in the few recent primaries the party has managed to muster. On the Democratic side, registered partisans made up a bare, 57 percent majority. If registration trends continue as they have been, the day may not be far off when the majority of voters in both primaries will be unenrolled.
One possible response to this is a great big shrug. Despite the fact that fewer and fewer voters are registered with a party, the vast majority of voters still identify themselves as aligned with a party when asked in a poll. They will fairly and reliably choose the same party when offered a choice, though affiliations do shift over time among some voters. Looking at parties in terms of transient feelings is appealing as a sort of post-modern tribalism, where membership is easily changeable based on your mood at the moment.
The relatively few remaining members of the parties, and really the smaller subset of activists within them, act as de facto gatekeepers to ballot access, culling the herd of candidates from which voters are allowed to choose. The members of each party trim out potential candidates in caucuses and conventions, exercises in durable and profound arcanity of which most voters are not even aware. This likely made more sense when the machinery of the party was of greater import, and membership more universal.
Now, if we accept the parties as centers of political gravity, rather than organized bodies with consistent membership, it makes it harder to defend their role in candidate screening. Unless the two parties can show they are able to regain membership, the changeable mass of voters who flock to each party should get more control of the candidates who make it through.
The heyday of party membership is likely over, at least for the foreseeable future. Across the county, people are choosing to affiliate less and less with institutions of many kinds. Massachusetts political parties are no different. They still serve many useful purposes, but some aspects of their roles should be reexamined.
Steve Koczela is the president and Hannah Chanatry is a research assistant at the MassINC Polling Group. The polling group is a subsidiary of MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth.