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editorial

Boston city election rules need a tune-up

Andrea Campbell, a political newcomer, beat longtime Councilor Charles Yancey handily — 58-to-34 percent — in a District 4 race that also included two other candidates.
Andrea Campbell, a political newcomer, beat longtime Councilor Charles Yancey handily — 58-to-34 percent — in a District 4 race that also included two other candidates. Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

BOSTON’S ELECTION laws are overdue for an update. Under a more efficient set of rules, two of the contests slated for the City Council ballot in November would already be over.

In a low-turnout preliminary election last week, Andrea Campbell, a political newcomer, beat longtime Councilor Charles Yancey handily — 58-to-34 percent — in a District 4 race that also included two other candidates. District 7 incumbent Tito Jackson took 66 percent of the vote Tuesday against five opponents. In city elections with three or more candidates, the top two finishers advance to a runoff. But in recent years, candidates who’ve won an outright majority in September in a field of three or more candidates have won easily in November as well. Look at Yancey or District 1 Councilor Sal LaMattina in 2013. Or Jackson in 2011. Or Tom Menino, who won just over half the vote in the 2009 mayoral preliminary and cruised to a 57-to-42 percent victory that November.

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In those cases, the general election campaign came to an entirely predictable outcome, but only after a lot of extra spending and fund-raising. Surely there are some circumstances — the political equivalent of being struck by lightning — in which a distant second-place finisher could rally in November. But the city shouldn’t build its election system around that possibility.

The solution is to scratch the second election in races where a candidate wins an outright majority in the preliminary. Beyond efficiency, there’d be a second benefit: The change, which would require a charter amendment (and the assent of the Legislature), could draw a larger electorate during preliminary elections — because they could end up deciding the entire race. Campaigns would be on notice; they might get only one shot to win over voters, so they’d have to make it count.

Voters and candidates alike tend to take election systems as a fixed part of the landscape. In practice, Boston should periodically reexamine its rules. Last week, the city had to find poll workers for precincts where as few as 18 voters showed up. Beyond trying to bring new voters to the polls, the city should also look for ways to bring down the cost of serving the voters who are already participating.

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One obvious option would be to align city elections, which occur in odd-numbered years, with the even-numbered elections for other state and federal offices. This change, too, would require help from Beacon Hill. But holding a smaller number of elections, and increasing the impact of each one, is a convenience for the voters.

Speaking of which, demographic shifts over recent decades in Boston have left some voting precincts with long lines on major election days, while other precincts are deserted. The city could deploy poll commissioners more effectively if precincts were roughly the same size. But as the group MassVote has pointed out, some Boston precincts have a few hundred people, while the largest bulges with more than 6,000. Redrawing precincts to equal them out makes it easier to get the right number of commissioners at the polls on election day.

None of these reforms — eliminating unnecessary runoffs, moving elections to even-numbered years, drawing new precincts — would amount to a radical shift in the election system. That’s the whole point. The rules just need some tinkering.