Isn’t winning by 1 vote enough?   

An insider’s perspective on Kristin Kassner’s strange odyssey to the State House   

IN LAST NOVEMBER’S election, Kristin Kassner, a candidate for state representative on the North Shore, flipped a seat from red to blue by a one-vote margin. But it didn’t come easily.  

Despite the will of the people being affirmed by a district-wide recount and court challenges to the election running their course, the Republican incumbent she defeated continued to occupy the seat for a full month after lawmakers were sworn in and began serving their two-year term. 

It was a snub to democracy that we should not allow to be repeated.  

Kristin, who lives in Hamilton with her husband and six-year-old son, was a political novice. In her campaign, she said the Second Essex District deserved bold, pragmatic leadership to uphold the district’s values and to lead on issues important to our communities. As a planning professional, she knew that building strong, resilient communities was not done by accident. She was eager to help the people of the district’s six towns—Georgetown, Hamilton, Ipswich, Newbury, Rowley, and part of Topsfield—realize a stronger future. She was up against a 10-year incumbent, Leonard Mirra, one of a dwindling number of Republicans in the Massachusetts Legislature. 

I first met Kristin in February 2022, nine months before the election. As a veteran campaign strategist on the North Shore who advises pro-choice women candidates for office, I reached out to Kristin to welcome her on her journey. 

She faced numerous obstacles in addition to the challenge that always comes with running against an established incumbent. As a public employee – she was director of planning for the town of Burlington – Kristin was unable to solicit donations for her own campaign or run campaign business in any public building. While working full-time in her government job, Kristin regularly sat in her car during lunch and Facetimed for media and endorsement interviews. 

The campaign had one paid employee, the communications director, and a volunteer campaign consultant. I went from coach to default campaign manager, as these were scarce amid a tsunami of candidates seeking office Massachusetts in 2022.  

To call this a Republican-leaning district was an understatement. Only one Democrat had won an election in the district since 1858. But Kristin had an impact on everyone she met, and her supporters coalesced to become a strong force. Together, a team of 50 volunteers knocked on doors all summer and fall. Kristin left her job in mid-September to devote herself full time to the campaign. 

After a remarkable effort, Kristin lost the election by 10 votes. A recount of the entire district was ordered, and election officials, lawyers and 200 volunteers from both parties hand-counted 24,168 ballots. When the tabulating was done, Kristin had won by a single vote. 

She joined a small club of elected officials in Massachusetts. In 2019, another first-time candidate, Julia Mejia, won an at-large seat on the Boston City Council by a single vote after a recount. In 1988, after 19 years on the Governor’s Council, Herbert Connolly lost his bid for reelection by one vote because he arrived to cast his own ballot after the polls had closed. 

On December 14, the secretary of state and the governor certified Kristin as Representative-Elect Kristin Kassner for the Second Essex District. All the door  

knocks and hikes up the endless driveways had paid off. 

On December 21, however, Mirra filed suit in Superior Court against two town clerks and three boards of registrars from the towns he had lost. He stated that he should be declared the winner of the election due to “incorrect and unlawful actions, decisions, mistakes and inaction” by election officials, or the court should declare “in the alternative, that the election is a tie and a special election must be held.”  

Election denial, which has so poisoned the national political landscape, was suddenly making an unwelcome appearance in Massachusetts. 

Over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday, Mirra filed four more lawsuits, including requests to review ballots in Superior Court, the state Appeals Court, and the Supreme Judicial Court. All were denied or dismissed based on lack of jurisdiction, and the Superior Court concluded that “the plaintiff has not shown a likelihood of success on appeal.” 

Despite this nightmare of events, Kristin was determined to be sworn-in with other lawmakers on January 4 and begin her work representing the district. She had a proclamation from the secretary of state and the governor that she “had been duly elected a Representative,” which further said she was “summoned to the General Court… on the first Wednesday of the month of January… to take your seat in the House of Representatives.” 

At 4:15 p.m. on the day before the inauguration, despite the certified vote of the people in the Second Essex District, the House speaker’s office informed Kristin that she would not be sworn in the next day.  

What had happened to democracy?  

House Speaker Ron Mariano appointed a special committee to “examine the returns of the voters” in the district. The Massachusetts Constitution gives the House of Representatives exclusive and final jurisdiction over who is seated as a member in its chamber. Under the provisions of Article LXIV of the amendments to the Constitution, the House allowed Mirra to extend his term until it determined who the rightful winner was. 

On January 4, Kristin put on her coat of armor, stood tall, and walked into the fourth-floor public gallery of the House of Representatives at the Massachusetts State House to watch her fellow elected representatives get sworn in. Her courage astounded me. 

While fellow elected representatives began their new careers, Kristin’s life was on hold until the special committee held a hearing to review the election returns. The three-member committee examined who had the authority to decide the election—the courts or the House of Representatives.  

According to the House committee’s report, the House’s jurisdiction is final after the governor has issued the certificate of election results. Since Mirra waited until after the certification to file his first lawsuit, all three courts rejected his complaints because they lacked jurisdiction. This error cost the Kassner campaign $15,000 in legal fees, money it did not have after a 10-month campaign and a recount. 

In his closing remarks at the committee’s hearing, Mirra introduced a new phrase to the proceedings: “human error.” He said that he did not believe that there was “massive fraud” in the election, but charged that there was “human error.” 

Human error can occur in elections with multiple voter options—some early, some mail-in, others on election day, using scanners, computers and same-day results. When the election is close, a recount confirms the final vote. Each ballot is counted with at least six observers. Judges make final decisions on any disputed ballots. This is called “human judgment.” 

Kristin Kassner being sworn-in as state representative by Gov. Maura Healey on February 3, 2023, a month after the rest of the Legislature was seated.

This election affirms the importance of every vote. Election denial creates doubt in the democratic process of selecting our leaders. If voters distrust the election system, they will lose their incentive to vote.  

The House of Representatives created doubt by delaying Kristin’s swearing-in. The election was certified, and courts have consistently rejected complaints from Kristin’s opponent. The special committee confirmed its jurisdiction and voted 2 to 1 to seat Kristin. They did not review any ballots.  

Kristin Kassner was finally sworn in as state representative on February 3, one month after the inauguration.  

We think we are safe in Massachusetts, where elections are respected and justice is fair, but democracy was close to peril here. Elections have winners and losers by design. If we accept the possibility of “human error” as a valid reason for further review of results after a recount, any election in America could potentially end in chaos.  

Meet the Author
Falling short by one vote is a difficult loss, but that is the margin it takes to win. 

Elizabeth A. Kilcoyne is a writer and political advisor. She formerly served as chair of the Ipswich Select Board and deputy comptroller for the Commonwealth, and was an adjunct faculty member at Suffolk University.