We should try again to sync state and municipal balloting

Bill Walczak

In last week’s Reporter, I proposed eliminating odd-numbered year elections to increase voter turnout for municipal elections and, as a byproduct, save $1.5 million by consolidating the balloting. I received many thoughtful responses.

I thought it was an original idea until former Boston City Councillor (1972-81) and mayoral candidate Larry DiCara informed me that the proposal had been advanced once before— four decades ago.

In 1976, the City Council and Mayor Kevin White petitioned the Legislature to approve a charter reform package that would have changed Boston’s elections to even-numbered years. In Massachusetts, such requests are called “home rule petitions.”

The Council, which had only nine at-large members at the time, approved the amendment to the charter by a 5-4 vote. It was signed by White, and sent to the Legislature for consideration.

DiCara explained that the package, which was revised in 1977, included the following:

Changing the City Council term from 2 years to 4 years;

Eliminating the elected School Committee in favor of one appointed by the mayor;

Changing municipal elections to even-numbered years;

Making city elections partisan (i.e., primaries to choose Republican and Democratic candidates who face each other in the final election). We currently have preliminary elections, which result in the two top candidates facing each other in the final election.

The “reform” package offered certain advantages to those who voted for it. A four-year-term for councillors (something that has been advanced by the council on several occasions since 1976, including in 2019) means fewer elections and less pressure to raise money. In 1977, going to a partisan run-off system was seen as an effort by White to be “mayor for life,” as getting the Democratic nomination for mayor in a city with fewer than 10 percent of voters registered as Republicans could offer a sure path to victory in a final election.

Turning the schools over to the mayor —something that was eventually adopted in 1991—may have been a way to stanch the racial turmoil of the desegregation/busing era.

The home rule petition, however, was “dead on arrival” on Beacon Hill, according to DiCara. For one thing, some Boston legislators had an interest in running for city office. Keeping the municipal elections to odd years meant that they could run for mayor, city council, or school committee without giving up their state seat. Ray Flynn followed this path when he ran for a citywide seat on the City Council as a sitting state representative, positioning himself for his successful run for mayor in 1983.

Boston has a voter-eligible population of about 500,000, of which about 400,000 are registered. When only 50,000 people vote, it is a skewed ballot with a large part of the voter base being city workers and their families and retired city workers, who may have particular interests in how the city is governed. That situation could, potentially, be at variance with the interests of the general Boston population.

We know that changing municipal elections to even-numbered years will result in a doubling of voters seeing a municipal ballot and save upwards of $1.5 million in the years in which no election is needed.

Improving democracy and saving money via changing the city’s election to even-numbered years is good for Boston. It’s time to offer a new home rule petition to have Boston’s municipal elections timed with state elections.

Bill Walczak’s column appears weekly in the Reporter. Walczak is a Dorchester resident, former mayoral candidate and former CEO/president of Codman Square Health Center.