The acrimonious campaign to remove Fall River mayor Will Flanagan, which ended on Tuesday night when the city’s voters replaced him with Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, has exposed a flaw in the rules governing the state’s recall elections. Many Massachusetts municipalities allow voters to fire mayors, selectmen, or other elected officials outside the normal reelection process. It’s a controversial practice; Boston, for instance, does not allow recalls. But for those cities that opt to have recalls, officials need to take a second look at their laws to ensure that the wishes of voters are actually honored.
That was not guaranteed to be the case in Fall River. Under the city’s current rules, Flanagan potentially could have remained mayor even if a majority of the electorate wanted to get rid of him. That’s because Tuesday’s ballot actually asked two separate questions. First, voters had to choose whether to remove Flanagan, a straightforward yes or no vote that passed amid worries about the city’s financial management. The second part of the ballot asked who should fill out the remaining 11 months in Flanagan’s term, and listed eight candidates — including Flanagan. So even if an overwhelming number of voters wanted Flanagan gone, he only would have needed to eke out a plurality victory in a crowded field on the second half of the ballot to stay in office. That loophole is a recipe for angry voters and political paralysis.
Luckily, it didn’t happen in Fall River. But the mere possibility of a split verdict in the Fall River vote should be a cautionary tale for other Massachusetts jurisdictions with recall mechanisms. Several of them also allow incumbents to run on the second ballot, potentially creating the same problem. One possible solution would be to treat the second question on the ballot as a primary; if the recall on the first part of the ballot passed, the top two-vote getters on replacement ballot would move on to a final election later, so that the eventual winner would still have to earn majority support. But that would mean the time and expense of another election.
Better still, municipalities should change the rules to simply bar recalled officials from running to replace themselves on the same ballot. Some Massachusetts communities, such as Holbrook, already have such a provision. Changing the rules requires approval from the Legislature, but it’s a fix worth pursuing in places with recall laws. When voters throw the bums out, the law should make sure they don’t sneak right back in.