Bostonians made history at the ballot box last week. The 13-member City Council will have, for the first time, a majority of women and a majority of people of color — a sign of Boston’s shifting identity and its progress in better reflecting its population with its elected political leadership.
But the contest also featured a rare razor-close finish in the race for at-large councilor — so close that the fourth and final at-large seat remains undecided pending a recount. The process has exposed that cumbersome electoral rules still govern contested vote counts in Boston and that it’s high time for a legislative fix.
The fourth- and fifth-place finishers for the last at-large seat, Latina candidates Julia Mejia and Alejandra St. Guillen, were separated by just 10 votes — a margin that shrank to 5 votes, with Mejia still ahead, when the unofficial count was updated this week. Given the narrow margin, both candidates requested a recount, which entails collecting 50 signatures from each of the city’s 22 wards, per rules for Boston set by the state. These 1,100 signatures must be certified and filed within 10 days of the petition.
This is an onerous and unnecessarily high bar for the candidates to meet. In a statement, St. Guillen said her team has mobilized 80 volunteers across the city to make the Nov. 15 deadline for signatures. After a months-long effort, “having to then rejuvenate an army of tired souls" to collect signatures working with depleted resources, the recount "is just outright brutal,” said Mejia in a statement.
At the very least, Boston — and other cities and towns in Massachusetts — should have the same standard applied to its recounts as the state applies in state-level and district-wide races. If that were the case, the Mejia and St. Guillen campaigns would have to gather only one-fourth the number of signatures they collected when they qualified as candidates for the at-large city council elections — or about 375 signatures citywide.
It’s a move that Bill Galvin, the secretary of state, endorses.
“At the state and district level, a recount can only happen if the margin of victory is not more than one half of one percent of the votes cast in the race,” said Galvin. “The candidate still has to ask for a recount, but there is a substantially lower amount of signatures required, and they don’t have to be obtained ward-by-ward.”
In most cities and towns in Massachusetts, a recount in a local race requires only 10 signatures, instead of 50 like Boston, from each ward. It would take a change in state law to align the Boston municipal recount regulations with the state- and district-wide standard.
Beyond lightening the recount load, the city’s electoral process could be vastly improved if recounts could be automatically triggered when the margin is extremely narrow — and the results therefore vulnerable to small errors— rather than requiring candidates to request what is simply sound and fair practice. Whether or not an election has a photo-finish for the history books, the burden should be on the municipality, not the candidates, to produce accurate final results. What happened in Boston last week may be an anomaly, but it points to a broader problem that lawmakers should remedy now so that voters can have full confidence in city elections and their results.