Inside Stories

Flipping a District Vote Retroactively is Especially Unjust

by Dr. Anne Mulhern

Just a few years ago, elections in Lowell were restructured. Previously all City Council seats had been At-large, which means that each candidate competed in a city-wide election, and the top nine candidates were then selected. Now, just three of the seats are At-large, and the eight remaining seats are District seats making eleven Council seats in all.

When these election changes were made, the procedure for replacing a City Councillor if a seat became vacant midterm was retained. If that happens, the first loser in the previous election, the runner-up, is appointed to fill the vacancy. This saved the cost of a special election, and worked reasonably well under the old system, in part because the first loser had often come in only a little behind the last winner.

For example, if a City Councillor had needed to be replaced midterm after the 2019 election, the appointment would have been conferred on Corey Belanger who had come in only 29 votes behind Daniel P. Rourke. The city as a whole had cast more than 63,000 votes in the election, so clearly there was not a strong preference for Rourke over Belanger among all the voters of Lowell combined; the difference between the two was less than one  tenth of 1% of all votes cast.

Things are different now, and this rule for midterm replacement is deeply unfair under the current election structure and unfairest of all if the midterm replacement is of a District seat instead of an At-Large seat. There a several reasons for this.

  • Previously, every voter received nine votes, which they could distribute among eighteen candidates. Each of their votes was worth the same, as each of their votes had to contend within the entire city with the votes of every other voter in the city. When the elections were restructured, each City Council seat lost a little value, since the number of seats was increased from nine to eleven: three At-Large seats and one seat for each of the eight voting districts. Each voter kept three of those devalued At-Large votes and traded in the remaining eight for a single District vote. That single District vote is now worth more to a voter than all three of their At-Large votes combined because it must compete only with the other votes in their voting district. In strict mathematical terms, that one District vote is worth 8/11 or over 70% of a voter’s total voting portfolio.
  • In some District races the winner ran unopposed. In this most recent election, that was true in two districts. If either of the City Councillors from those districts becomes unable to serve during their term, the the City Council will appoint a Councillor to fill out the rest of their term from a list of applicants for that position. This has already happened in the case of a School Board District seat, as it turns out. Note that the problem of having no first loser was very unlikely under the old structure, so the fact that the procedure for replacement in this case is so very undemocratic mattered little. Now that this same rule is likely to be applied regularly under the new structure, that the procedure is anti-democratic matters very
  • If there had been a losing candidate in a District seat and that seat becomes vacant mid-term, then that losing candidate is the one selected to serve the rest of the term. Under the new election structure, however, that candidate is quite likely to have lost by a wide margin, that is the voters may have displayed a very strong preference for the winning candidate over the losing one. For example, in the recent District 2 election, Corey Michael Robinson defeated Martin J. Hogan by 420 votes, that is 60% of all votes cast in that election. This is over 1000 times as strong a preference for Robinson over Hogan as the voters had previously shown for Daniel P. Rourke over Corey Belanger in the last election run under the old election structure which I discussed previously.

Consider now what it would mean for every voter of District 2 if Robinson were, for whatever reason, unable to serve out his upcoming term.

Under the existing rule he would be replaced by Hogan. For Hogan to have won a majority in that election would have required 211 of the voters in District 2 to have voted for him instead of Robinson, that is, 30% of all District 2 voters. To apply the existing rule for replacement is equivalent to retroactively flipping the votes of that many voters from Robinson to Hogan. The effect is thoroughly anti-democratic and is only made worse by the fact that the vote being flipped is the most effective vote in a voter’s portfolio. (If Robinson had run unopposed, then the appointment of a successor chosen by the other members of the City Council would be equivalent to retroactively flipping 354 of all the votes cast in that election to this chosen applicant.)

When I consider how much discussion of this change in election structure occurred around the time it was designed and voted on I find myself dismayed that apparently nobody involved seems to have considered the problem of mid-term replacement in sufficient depth to understand that the rules that were in place for the old election structure would be so unjust under the current election structure. As I have stated in a previous article, the only democratic way to address the problem of a District seat falling vacant mid-term is to hold a special election.

The difficulty is that this change in procedure has to be accomplished by legislative means. Who is responsible for the anti-democratic procedures that are currently in place and who can change them? Since I’m just an ordinary citizen of Lowell I simply do not know.

5 responses to “Flipping a District Vote Retroactively is Especially Unjust”

  1. HaddaNuff says:

    What makes people think Corey’s going anywhere?

  2. Jenny says:

    Why weren’t these articles written when Susie Chhoun secured her school committee seat in the same manner? Now, the desire to alter the rules appears rooted in bias to ensure Corey remains in his seat. This reeks of hypocrisy. Despite representing Centerville, Corey consistently introduces motions on citywide matters, not solely focused on Centerville. As someone not from Centerville – I do not want him to speak on my behalf. Moreover, Centerville residents elected three at-large councilors to advocate for their needs, stop pushing the agenda that they will be disenfranchised.

  3. Teddy Panos says:

    Easy answer to that one Jenny is InsideLowell wasn’t in operation until October 2022. More complicated answer is the succession process has been a focal point for me as a radio host and now with InsideLowell. It will continue to be until its resolved, regardless of the circumstances requiring it.

  4. Timothy says:

    If you were truly focused on the city’s succession plan, Teddy, why didn’t you voice your thoughts during the city council meeting on 12/5 when the motion about discussing and approving a procedure to fill a vacant council position was raised? Your input, as you stated, regardless of the situation, would have demonstrated the importance you place on this matter.

  5. Teddy Panos says:

    “Timothy” (or is it Patricia E.? Janey Koel? LA Guapa? or one of the other fake names you’ve used, all from the same IP Address?), it’s been the subject of numerous discussions both in writing and via podcast. I don’t need to speak at a city council meeting….I have a different vehicle to share my thoughts. I leave the council meetings to the elected/appointed officials as well as the residents of Lowell.

    However, as stated, it’s been the topic of multiple articles on IL and during podcasts as well.

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