February 4, 1999

What if we held an election and no one came?



Participation in elections is alarmingly low. No, I don't mean voter turnout. Voter participation has been steady over years, once you adjust for the effects of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That law added to the voter rolls many 18-to-20 year olds who tend not to vote. Even before the Motor Voter bill was signed into law in 1993, adding many more non-voters to the rolls, registering to vote in Cambridge was easy -- easier than getting a resident parking sticker.

No, my concern is the dearth of candidates.

The three state senators whose districts account for 98 percent of Cambridge were all elected with little or no opposition in 1998. In the open Middlesex and Suffolk seat only one Democrat ran. Voters in that West and North Cambridge district had a single name on the September primary ballot: Steve Tolman for Democrats and Guy Carbone for Republicans.


The advantage of incumbency

The $57,000 that Tolman collected for an uncontested primary and to beat a Republican in a heavily Democrat district was the least that any winning state senate candidate in Cambridge raised.

It was also 24 times what his opponent had. Carbone raised $2,410, the most of any losing senate candidate. In this, the closest Cambridge race, Carbone garnered 20 percent of the vote. Tolman, a state representative at the time that he ran for this seat being vacated by his brother, was able to run practically as an incumbent.

Peter Sheinfeld, a Republican candidate defeated in the primary for the Suffolk and Middlesex district, and Vincent Dixon, the Republican candidate from that district in the general election, were swamped by incumbent Robert Travaglini. Travaglini raised $109,541, or 273 times the amount available to both Republicans combined. Travaglini's Democrat primary opponent Ralph Lopez had not filed a campaign finance report as of a week after the deadline and has a Notice of Assessment of Civil Penalty in his file at the Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Lopez's last report showed that he had raised a mere $40 through Oct. 16.

Senate President Thomas Birmingham raised the most money, $183,973 for an election in which he had neither primary nor general election opposition in his Mid-Cambridge district. Also unopposed in his East Cambridge district was Tim Toomey, who nevertheless collected $21,189 in campaign funds.


New law further discourages challengers

In November, voters passed the so-called "Clean Election" law. Under this scheme, candidates can qualify for taxpayer funding. Perversely, the law gives free money only to candidates who are already proven fundraisers.

For state senate and state representative, the minimum number of contributions needed to qualify for "Clean Election" money is greater than the number of signatures now required to get on the ballot.

There are districts, including Cambridge seats, where no Republican runs because it is too difficult to get the required number of signatures. A Republican who struggles to get signatures would have no hope of qualifying for the taxpayer funding. Needless to say, it is doubtful if any third-party candidate could ever qualify for the funding.

It is equally hard to imagine any incumbent not getting the minimum qualifying contributions. In every district there are people -- contributors -- with a financial interest in matters that the incumbent will vote on.

Republican, Libertarian, and even most Democrat challengers have faced the disheartening prospect of running against an incumbent who can far outspend them. Now, thanks to the "Clean Elections" law, they will see their tax dollars used to pay for the incumbent's campaign.

If we are to have only one name on the ballot, perhaps we could arrange, as I am told they did in the Soviet Union, to at least offer voters the option of voting NO.


Lee Street resident David Trumbull is chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.