Friday, July 13, 2007

For Council at Large: Later and Less Often

The Boston City Council is trying to make an off-year election more streamlined and less expensive. At a special meeting July 12, the Council approved a home rule petition that would make it possible to skip this year’s preliminary election for its members at large. Nine people are running for the four seats, and a preliminary vote September 25 would only eliminate one candidate. If the petition were to be signed by Mayor Menino and approved in the State House, there would be a special law allowing all 9 at-large candidates to appear on the ballot once, in November.

One of the 7 councilors who voted for the home rule petition, Stephen Murphy, calls it a “sensible” way to save money.

“I don’t think anybody’s hurt by it,” said Murphy. “The taxpayers save three-quarters of a million dollars.”

That’s based on having a preliminary vote for councilor at large, with police and civilians at polling places for 196 precincts. The remaining precincts would have at least three candidates running for a council district seat.

Voting against the special law were Councilors Michael Flaherty, John Tobin, Charles Yancey, and Sam Yoon. Councilor FĂ©lix Arroyo voted present.

“We didn’t have any public hearings on this,” said Yancey. “We didn’t have any of the other candidates weigh in on the issue.”

More difficult to predict is how the change would affect election results. Arroyo and three of the “no” votes have all seen their fortunes improve dramatically after trailing in a preliminary election. Flaherty won his first term in 1999 by moving up from 5th place and bumping veteran Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neil, who finished third in the preliminary. Four years ago, Arroyo ran fifth in the preliminary, then finished second, displacing Patricia White from her spot among the top four. In 2005, it was Sam Yoon who went from fifth place to third, switching spots with John R. Connolly. In 2001, John Tobin won his first term as councilor in District 6 (W. Roxbury/Jamaica Plain) after trailing Mike Rush in the preliminary.

If there’s any change in an electorate from preliminary to final, it’s size. The larger pool of voters is usually more diverse. That might have been a factor in the slippage for candidates whose political names had more recognition. The difference might even pose a problem for Murphy, though he says that’s unlikely. “I’m not concerned about a primary,” he said. “I’ve got more money than anybody but Flaherty.”

Murphy also argues the lack of a preliminary for councilors at large this year will have little effect on voter turnout. “An at-large race does not drive turnout,” he said. “A district race does, and a mayor’s race drives turnout.”

There was agreement from the president of the Boston League of Women Voters, Mary Tamer. "If they do go ahead and eliminate the preliminary election," she said, "nobody's getting hurt here."

While the home rule petition would mean less work for the Boston Election Dept. this year, Tamer noted the unusually high number of special elections to fill local seats vacated before the end of a term.

"Our primary concern" about the City Council race, she said, "is that the people who want to be on the ballot are there, and that has been taken care of with this proposal."

It can also be said that a preliminary for councilor at large would only subtract marginal candidates. Some of them, such as Anthony Schinella, at least made the rounds at forums and contributed to the pre-electoral discourse. But some of the other discards included Dan “The Bagel Man” Kontoff and Arthur Lucky Craffey. And, in some years, the discards were very few: one in 1997, and two in 1999 (when the 9th place candidate received 2,137 votes). There was no preliminary in 2001, because there were only 7 candidates at large. That number doubled in 2003 and went to 15 in 2005.

Between the candidate forums and coverage in the media, a preliminary election helps put people on notice about the upcoming final. But what’s obvious in the larger picture is that fewer people have been running for City Council since the last time it was reconfigured, in the election of 1983. In the last preliminary election for the all at-large council in 1981, there were 40 candidates for 9 seats. This year (also with no mayoral election), there are only 27 for 13 seats. Take away the six running for an open seat in Allston-Brighton, and there are 21 for 12 seats. Five of the 8 district councilors on the ballot this year are unopposed. Two others are having a rematch with a challenger who previously won less than 20% of the vote. That leaves only one district with a new challenger.