Debate over special elections heated — and complicated  

What’s fair to some is seen by others as a ‘thumb on the scale’  

WITH THE SUDDEN EXIT of the mayor of Lawrence and imminent expected departure of Boston’s mayor, officials in both communities have scrambled to head off special elections that are called for in their city charters and instead have a new mayor chosen in the regularly scheduled municipal election in November. They have cited everything from the hazards of carrying out multiple elections amid a pandemic to the lower turnout for special elections and the unfair advantage a quickly scheduled race can give to established political players.  

Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of democracy. The country just experienced perhaps the most brazen effort in its history to undermine that principle with the storming of the US Capitol by an armed mob of right-wing zealots bent on reversing the results of a fairly conducted presidential election.  

But what is the fairest way to hold an election under the much more prosaic circumstances of a sudden vacancy in a mayor’s office? The answer isn’t always clear cut, and the quick moves to scrap special elections in Lawrence and Boston are drawing heated debate, with proponents calling it a way to promote broader democratic participation while critics are crying foul at the idea of changing the rules in the midst of an already unfolding campaign. 

Special elections to fill unexpired terms in office are hardly a novelty in Massachusetts. The municipal maneuverings to deal with sudden mayoral vacancies are playing out against the backdrop of a state Legislature where special elections have become so routine they represent the path into office for more than a quarter of all Beacon Hill lawmakers.  

The epidemic of off-calendar legislative elections is now playing out in particularly jarring fashion with a special election in Winthrop and Revere for the seat vacated by former House speaker Robert DeLeo, who resigned in late December without serving a single day in the new two-year term to which he had been elected only weeks earlier.  

The special election debate is drawing the most attention in Boston, as the state’s largest city prepares for a rare contest for an open mayor’s seat. Pending his confirmation by the US Senate as secretary of labor in the Biden administration, Mayor Marty Walsh will resign in the coming weeks. But exactly when that happens has big implications for the race to succeed him. 

According to the city charter, a vacancy in the mayor’s seat before March 5 would trigger a special election, to be held 120 to 140 days later. A June or July election would be followed by another mayoral election during the regular municipal election in November. The prospect of two mayoral elections months apart — with possible preliminary elections before each — prompted City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo to file a home rule petition last week that would suspend the need for a special election. Under his proposal, Boston would have a single mayoral election this fall, as already scheduled, regardless of when Walsh resigns.  

“I think special elections are largely undemocratic,” said Arroyo. There is a long “history of voter disenfranchisement with special elections, or rushed elections, as I call them.”  

Arroyo pointed to low voter turnout in special elections, especially among blacks, Latinos, immigrants, the disabled, and lower-income residents who may be working multiple jobs or face other barriers to voting. On top of all that, he said, are the challenges of conducting multiple elections amid the COVID pandemic. The fairest way to ensure broad participation in selecting the city’s next mayor, he says, is to have the election at the regularly scheduled time.  

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo

But City Councilor Matt O’Malley said he is troubled by the prospect of doing away with a special election in the midst of a mayoral transition. “I am always uneasy when an elected body changes the rules after the fact,” he said of Walsh’s cabinet nomination.  

City Council President Kim Janey would become acting mayor upon Walsh’s resignation. A Roxbury district councilor who had not previously declared any mayoral ambitions, Janey has now hired a political consulting firm and is weighing a run for mayor. Delaying the mayoral election until the fall would give Janey several more months to burnish her credentials as acting mayor should she decide to run.  

“We have to be careful so we’re not seen as putting our thumb on the scale for any individual,” O’Malley said of the advantage a fall election might give Janey.  

Two city councilors, at-large councilor Michelle Wu and district councilor Andrea Campbell, announced runs for mayor in September, at a time when many expected Walsh to seek a third term. Both had been raising money and building their organizations in anticipation of an election this fall, a head start that might have given them an edge in a special election this summer.  

Wu nonetheless said she backs the move to avoid a special election.  

“I support having the election in November,” she said. “We are still very much in the middle of a pandemic, and the extra cost and the public health considerations of having two elections in a year should drive the decision making here.”  

Campbell signed on as a co-sponsor of Arroyo’s home rule petition, but says a deliberative process should play out to determine whether to cancel a possible special election.  

“What is most important is that every voter in Boston can safely and easily cast their ballot because this is an election that will have tremendous impact on the daily lives of all Bostonians,” she said in a statement. “It’s important we hold a hearing as soon as possible to hear directly from residents as well as our elections department about the best way forward to ensure safety, accessibility, and the integrity of our elections this year. 

The proposal needs to be passed by the City Council, signed by the mayor, and then approved by the Legislature and governor. But there appears to be lots of momentum behind the change, with Secretary of State William Galvin and Gov. Charlie Baker already signaling their support.  

City Councilor Kenzie Bok hit on the challenge of separating the broader argument for scrapping a special election from questions about which candidates and potential candidates might be helped or hurt by the decision. 

“I think we all know that those political realities are on the table, and they make this a complicated conversation,” she said during last week’s council meeting where the proposal was introduced. 

“This is a hard thing to solve,” said Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University who focuses on election issues. “You want to craft laws that maximize participation but I think that is really trumped in this case by anything that can be perceived as gamesmanship.” He said that principle tends to argue for making changes for the long-term to election laws that are in need of reform, but being “very cautious” about enacting changes to the process that would apply immediately.   

In Lawrence, the decision to do away with a special election has already been made. When Mayor Dan Rivera stepped down on January 8 after being tapped by Baker to run a state development agency, the city charter called for a special election within three months to replace him. But the Lawrence city council rushed through a measure to do away with the requirement and elect a new mayor in November. The plan, which the council approved 5-2, was quickly ratified by the Legislature and signed by Baker. 

Proponents offered similar arguments to those being advanced in Boston, including the increased danger of voting during a pandemic and the cost of holding two elections in less than a year. 

Rivera said the short 90-day period for a special election campaign was the main reason why he supported the change. He said criticism over canceling an election has to be weighed against allowing more time for voters to make an informed choice about a new mayor.   

“The idea of disenfranchisement isn’t just about holding a vote,” Rivera said. “It’s also — will we have enough time to get to know the candidates? This isn’t a job at McDonald’s.” 

Former Lawrence mayor Dan Rivera favored cancelling a special election to choose his successor. “The idea of disenfranchisement isn’t just about holding a vote,” he said. “It’s also — will we have enough time to get to know the candidates? This isn’t a job at McDonald’s.”

But not everyone in Lawrence is happy with the streamlining of democracy.  

The city council president, Kendrys Vasquez, who moved into the mayor’s post with Rivera’s resignation, said he is weighing whether to run for the office in the fall. As with Janey, the Boston city council president, holding off on an election until November could give Vasquez more time to show his mayoral mettle.   

But Pavel Payano, one of the two Lawrence city councilors who voted against doing away with the special election, says another political agenda was behind the move. Payano maintains the change was made to give Rivera’s preferred candidate to succeed him, Vilma Martinez-Dominguez, the city’s community development director, time to build her base of support. Martinez-Dominguez announced her candidacy for mayor last week.  

“The entire political machine was in support of this,” Payano said. “It had nothing to do with COVID and more to do with having a certain candidate get elected.” 

As in Boston, it’s hard to dismiss the idea that suddenly overriding the city charter in Lawrence might help some potential candidates and hurt others. But there is a strong argument that avoiding special elections, in general, may be a worthy reform if debated and settled outside the heat of the moment when a vacancy has occurred.  

The origins of holding elections that break with the established calendar has a long — and inglorious — history. The practice dates back to the 16th century, when Thomas Cromwell, a key advisor to King Henry VIII, devised a system for filling vacancies in the House of Commons with “by-elections” that were called at a time of the king’s choosing. The royal court “timed elections to ensure that their allies were ready to stand for the seats when the elections were finally called,” according to a recent law review article in the Journal of Law and Policy on the legal history of filling state legislative vacancies.   

The roots of special elections were “an effort to consolidate monarchical power,” said Rachael Cobb, a professor of government at Suffolk University. That history, she said, underscores “why one of the hallmarks of democracy is regular elections at specified times.” 

Thomas Cromwell, a chief advisor to King Henry VIII, is credited with devising in the 16th century the system of off-calendar special elections now used to fill vacancies in elected offices. The “by-elections,” as they are known in England, were timed by the royal court to dates when their allies were best prepared to stand for election. (Portrait by Hans Holbein via Wikimedia)

While there’s no longer monarchical power in Massachusetts to consolidate, the closest thing remaining may be the insular world of the state Legislature, where competitive races are few and the power of incumbency is strong. The Legislature stands as the poster child for the damage done by special elections to the concept of democratic rule through “regular elections as specified times.”  

2019 report by the nonpartisan public policy think tank MassINC found that Massachusetts ranks last or nearly last on various measures of legislative competitiveness, and it pointed to the jarring frequency of special elections as one factor responsible for that. “Uncompetitive elections raise added concerns when one reason for the lack of competition is undue advantage for established insiders,” said the report. “Nearly one-quarter of state representatives and over one-third of state senators currently holding office first entered the legislature through a special election. These are generally extremely low-turnout contests held on short notice, providing considerable advantage to those with established political connections.” (MassINC is the publisher of CommonWealth.) 

In the Winthrop-Revere House district that DeLeo represented for 30 years, a five-way scramble is on to win the Democratic nomination in a March 2 special election primary.  

Longtime House speaker Robert DeLeo resigned in December before ever serving even a day in the two-year term he had just won, setting in motion a costly special election to replace him.

DeLeo was reelected in November but resigned in December before the new session of the Legislature to which he was elected even began. There had been speculation brewing for some time that DeLeo might be planning his exit, and some think he ran for reelection without ever intending to take his seat this year.  

“I am a firm believer that he never intended on serving,” said Rep. Russell Holmes, a Boston Democrat. “He gamed the system the entire time, and it is detrimental not only to his district but to all of us.” 

DeLeo did not respond to a message left with his former staff.  

Not only did DeLeo’s departure set in motion a late winter special election when few voters are expecting a campaign, it will impose added costs on Winthrop and Revere at a time when municipal governments are struggling with the demands of the pandemic. Revere election officials say it will cost $50,000 to $60,000 to conduct the March 2 primary and March 30 general election in the nine Revere precincts in the district. Winthrop election officials didn’t respond to a message.  

“People were surprised, given the fact that we just had an election in November,” Dimple Rana, the chair of the Revere Democratic City Committee, said of DeLeo’s resignation and the quickly scheduled special election. “It’s really inequitable because the folks who can either self-fund their campaigns or can easily get the money to run their campaigns have an advantage.”  

Holmes clashed regularly with DeLeo, but his concern with special elections predates the longtime House speaker’s departure. Holmes sponsored a bill last session to do away with special elections for legislative vacancies entirely and wait to fill seats at the next regular election.  

“I think special elections are a horrible thing, they are horrible for communities of color, they disenfranchise us,” said the veteran black lawmaker. “They just benefit those who are already connected.”  

Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said suddenly changing election laws when a resignation occurs or is about to occur “opens up a whole can of worms.” 

“Process is all we have in a democracy,” she said of the idea of applying consistent rules. On the other hand, she said, off-schedule elections “have notoriously low turnout” and are “really problematic” for democracy in a much broader sense.  

“It’s become a cultural thing that there’s no shame in,” she said of the constant turnover of legislative seats through special elections. “If you want free and fair elections where everyone who’s considering a run has an equal shot, special elections don’t allow for that.”