Four arguments for four-year Boston City Council terms
Change would bring more competition, more diverse electorate
THERE HAS BEEN a great deal of discussion and debate after the Boston City Council recently voted 12-1 in favor of extending their term length from two years to four years in order to coincide with the four-year mayoral term.
Final approval of any changes to their term length still requires the sign-off of the mayor, the state Legislature, and the governor. However, opponents were quick to position the vote in favor of four-year terms as a self-serving power grab by the City Council. Some suggested the longer term would reduce accountability to the city’s voters while increasing the barriers candidates would face to challenge incumbents.
Less than a year removed from voting themselves a significant raise, it’s understandable why there is skepticism about the council’s motivations. However, what has been lost in the public discourse around this proposal are some key and compelling reasons why a four-year term actually makes sense.
As a current and former staffer for Ayanna Pressley, a sitting Boston city councilor, we have a unique vantage point on how municipal and electoral institutions impact political behavior. One of us has managed and won city council campaigns in Boston, and one of us studies municipal elections as part of a doctoral program in political science at Northeastern University.
But we’re also committed to improving the functioning of city government, and to invigorating the democratic process that selects its leaders. We’re convinced that moving to four-year council terms would advance these goals.
In large American cities like Boston, the four-year city council term is the norm, not the exception. Of the 33 cities with more than 500,000 residents as of the 2010 US Census, only five of them currently utilize a two-year council term (Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio). The four-year term is touted by groups like the National Civic League – a nonpartisan nonprofit organization founded by municipal reformers over a century ago to fight the ills associated with urban political machines.
We think there are four healthy developments that would likely follow a move by Boston to four-year council terms: 1) more credible challengers; 2) more time for challengers to build their case with voters; 3) more voters and a more representative electorate choosing members of the City Council; and 4) more substantive legislation and other more forward-looking work emanating from the council.
1. More credible challengers
Opponents of the four-year term charge that this is nothing more than a self-serving move by councilors to increase the power of incumbency and ward off pesky challengers. This charge conveniently ignores the fact that city councilors already hold a very strong incumbency advantage and, notwithstanding a couple of recent high-profile examples, rarely face credible reelection opponents.
In the 2015 council race, only the four incumbents and one lone challenger ran for the four at-large city council positions — the fewest at-large candidates since sitting City Councilor Michael Flaherty knocked off Albert “Dapper” O’Neil in another five-way race in 1999, also an off-year election.
Meanwhile, five out of the nine district city councilors were unopposed in 2015. Before a single vote was actually cast, eight of the thirteen councilors were guaranteed reelection to another two-year term. The dearth of challengers in non-mayoral years provides at-large councilors essentially a four-year term.
In 2013, a mayoral year, there were 19 candidates in the at-large field. In 2011, a non-mayoral year, there were just seven candidates. In 2009, when Mayor Thomas Menino faced off against Michael Flaherty, there were 15 at-large candidates, with future mayoral contenders John Connolly and Felix G. Arroyo, current Councilor Pressley and former councilor Stephen Murphy winning seats.
The at-large fields in mayoral years are not just more competitive but more reflective of Boston, with more racial, ethnic, class and gender diversity and more candidates from varied backgrounds and experiences. Losing at-large candidates in recent mayoral years includes current councilors Essabi George and Tito Jackson, restauranteur Philip Frattaroli, mayoral advisor Tomas Gonzalez, and iRecover founder and substance abuse advocate Jack Kelley.
In last year’s City Council election, Andrea Campbell challenged – and beat – longtime incumbent Charles Yancey in the District Four race (Yancey had been the only councilor to ever represent District Four since its inception in 1983). Campbell was the first challenger to knock off a sitting district councilor since Paul Scapicchio beat Diane Modica in the 1997 election in District One. By knocking off longtime incumbent Stephen Murphy, Annissa Essabi George was the first challenger to defeat an incumbent at-large councilor since John Connolly defeated Felix D. Arroyo in 2007.
As these two women exemplify, it is possible for intelligent, hardworking, and dedicated candidates to beat incumbents. But looking closer at their victories makes clear they are the exceptions which prove the rule. Councilor Essabi George never stopped running after her 5th place finish in 2013, and was the rare challenger with an identified voter base, measurable name recognition, and stress-tested campaign infrastructure.
In District Four, where Yancey had faced just one real reelection challenge in 34 years, so prevailing was the perception of his incumbency advantage that credible candidates repeatedly passed on challenging him. Yancey’s easy off-year victories masked what were, in hindsight, glaring deficiencies and easily exploited vulnerabilities. But it wasn’t just potential challengers who overinflated Yancey’s winning streak; Yancey himself appears to have bought the hype. In the campaign postmortem, it became clear Yancey had all but abandoned the concrete advantages incumbents enjoy by flagrantly failing to identify and connect with new voters in his district and doing little to maintain and modernize his political infrastructure.
2. More time for challengers to build campaigns and make their case with voters
Successful campaigns require lead time to carry out planning, fundraising, and organization building. Nascent campaigns benefit from a longer span between elections just as much as any sitting incumbent. In this sense, two-year terms benefit incumbents because they already have a campaign organization, name recognition, and a fundraising network in place. Incumbents already possess voter databases, literature and campaign materials, and volunteer lists. Incumbents know the best places to collect signatures, the best corners to stand out on, and the right person to call to get into a senior home.
Challengers, even the most prepared, also discover another reality of off-year council elections: no one pays attention. Massachusetts law allows individuals to donate a maximum of $1,000 each calendar year to a candidate. A savvy challenger will begin fundraising in the winter before the election year in order to be able to quickly double-up on donations. Their formal announcement will happen early in the election year and will become official if they qualify for the ballot during signature collecting in April.
Then nothing happens. Come April, the council is in the midst of its budget season, which provides incumbents with regular opportunities to speak to the media, highlight policy priorities and achievements, and connect with voters. The challenger waits. Then the summer comes. The challenger knocks doors and might participate in a handful of forums. Then Labor Day. Then the preliminary election. Challengers have from April until mid-September to make their argument to off-year voters.
Identifying, educating, persuading and activating likely voters is an expensive, time consuming process. Challengers wrongly assume the task will be made easier through earned media and public forums.
Council races rarely receive consistent and in-depth media coverage. At-large candidates have the advantage of being able to target the city’s entire media universe (though their races are still largely uncovered) but district candidates are reliant on neighborhood weeklies. Finally, challengers must face a harsh media reality: they don’t make news. A credible challenger can expect a story when they announce, make the ballot, appear at a forum, and immediately prior to Election Day. Who is making news? Their incumbent opponent.
That flawed thinking leads to strained budgets as challenger campaigns regularly underestimate the cost necessary to identify and persuade a voter, let alone convince them to actually leave the house in mid-September to vote.
Thus, the incumbency advantage in Boston is enhanced by the two-year term. Moving to a four-year term increases the prestige of the office, brings more urgency to an election, and has the potential to bring out candidates that are more qualified, and well-prepared to not only run, but win. There is no evidence showing that the move to a four-year term will exacerbate the extreme incumbency advantage already held by sitting city councilors.
3. More voters and a more representative electorate choosing members of the council
In January, a Boston Globe editorial bemoaned the frequency of Massachusetts legislative special elections, saying they “generally have abysmal turnout and are highly vulnerable to special-interest manipulation” and “add needless cost and complexity to the political system. ” The same could easily be said of Boston City Council off-year elections. Yet, in an editorial earlier this month, the Globe proclaimed off-year city council elections an “important check on incumbents,” despite the fact over the last 10 elections, with 13 seats potentially up for grabs each time, a grand total of four incumbent city councilors failed to be reelected.
It is clear that the timing of elections matters, and the city would be better off if council elections were always held concurrently with mayoral elections every four years. As shown in the graph below, when not held concurrently with a mayoral election, turnout in a Boston city council election is typically less than half of what it is when a mayor is on the ballot too. This means that councilors are held accountable to a much smaller electorate when they are on the ballot alone. By moving the election to coincide with mayoral elections, councilors would consistently need to be accountable to a much larger and more diverse electorate that actually reflects the city.
Countless studies have shown that voter turnout at all levels of governance tends to skew toward the wealthier, older, more educated, and non-minority populations. However, this skew is especially drastic in low-turnout elections. When turnout is low, particular groups, demographics, or even neighborhoods can have an increased influence on the outcome of an election. This, in turn, increases the influence of certain interest groups, such as labor unions or neighborhood associations, which share those demographics and geography. This dynamic presents significant barriers for candidates to mount competitive challenges in the current system.
By moving council elections to coincide with mayoral elections, some of this skew disappears, and councilors are forced to be responsive to a much larger swath of the city’s population. This could have an effect on the types of councilors elected to the body, and in turn lead to a greater diversity of opinion in municipal policymaking.
Local elected officials deal with many of the day-to-day issues faced by residents in this city – from police and fire to the school system and zoning code. When turnout is low and not equally distributed across the city, there’s a chance that policies will focus on the needs of high-turnout precincts of the city at the expense of other areas. By increasing the turnout citywide with quadrennial elections, the gap between who does and does not vote declines, and favoritism becomes less likely.
4. More substantive legislation and other work by the council
Critics of the City Council claim that it is a powerless, ineffective legislative body. However, substantial policy change takes time, especially given the institutional constraints faced by city councilors. Much of the major policy handled by the council requires the passage of a home rule petition, meaning not only must the legislation pass the council with the mayor’s signature, it also needs approval from the Legislature and governor.
This is a process that takes a long time. Councilors need to not only guide their proposal through their own chamber, they must lobby state representatives and senators to take up their cause.
Opponents of four-year terms highlight the two-year terms of Massachusetts state legislators and members of Congress. Comparing the term length of councilors with these offices, however, is not necessarily a fair exercise. State legislators and members of Congress, despite their two-year terms, have much greater legislative power than a city councilor.
State legislators and members of Congress benefit from institutions – like joint committees, or the fact they are housed in the same building – that facilitate lawmaking with the other legislative chamber. City councilors do not have this benefit. Instead of working within a bicameral legislature like state lawmakers or members of Congress, city councilors are forced to take their legislation to a completely different level of government, one dominated by legislators that do not represent the City of Boston.
Successfully guiding policy through multiple levels of government takes time and patience. We’ve experienced this firsthand with Councilor Pressley’s work on liquor license reform, an issue that for her has spanned three terms. A large-scale endeavor such as this requires time for extensive research; legislation drafting and redrafting; meetings; lobbying; hearings; negotiations; and, eventually, the oversight of implementation.
By maintaining the two-year term, councilors are encouraged to focus on policy that is considered noncontroversial, risk-averse, or that can quickly gain the support of the entire council – the low-hanging-fruit.
Councilors are expected to display independence, and produce sound policy addressing large-scale issues within a two-year time frame. Sometimes this is a reasonable expectation, but other times it is not. Each off-year election, dominated by older, whiter voters and interest groups, positions their particular issues and policies at the forefront of the council agenda. To be successful in a reelection attempt, councilors need to demonstrate that they are adept policymakers with legislative accomplishments. Unfortunately, with a two-year term, the quantity of policy (or the media attention it commands) can trump quality. A longer term affords councilors the security to tackle the larger, often institutionalized, multi-neighborhood challenges facing our city.
The American political system is a work in progress. Democracy is not something to merely attain, but something we must work to maintain. This requires experimentation when things are not working the way we expect them to. Part of this experiment includes adapting deep-rooted institutions to the changing circumstances of our political environment. The benefits of experimenting with a four-year term far outweigh any downsides.Given the current electoral advantage incumbents already hold, it’s hard to imagine four-year terms will exacerbate this problem. Instead, four-year terms have the potential to diversify the electorate that chooses our city councilors, while allowing for them to tackle the larger often-institutionalized issues facing our city.
James Sutherland is research director for Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, and an instructor and PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. James Chisholm is the principal and founder of Chisholm Consulting, a Boston-based public affairs and communications firm, and previously served as chief of staff to City Councilor Pressley.