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Boston looks at moving preliminary back a week due to mail-in voting; one councilor has more radical idea: Spring preliminaries

Eneida Tavares

The City Council is considering a proposal by the Boston Elections Department to hold the September preliminary elections for mayor and city councilor on Sept. 14, rather than Sept. 21, which would give more time for voters to apply for and return mail-in ballots for the November final elections - assuming the state allows for widespread mail-in voting again this year.

Without the extra week, Elections Commissioner Eneida Tavares told a city-council committee today, various deadlines will make it tough to give voters enough time to apply for and return the ballots - just three weeks if the preliminary were on Sept. 21.

She said her department can't begin the process of printing final ballots until a minimum of six days after the preliminary, because state law gives preliminary candidates that much time to contest results - and because the city would also have to hold a drawing to determine the order of candidates on the ballot. And then it would have to get the ballot information to its printer and that company would then have to get the completed ballots back to the city for distribution, she said.

And at a hearing that included at-large Councilor Julia Mejjia, who won her council seat in 2019 by 1 vote after a recount, Tavares added that schedule hinges on nobody appealing their preliminary results - a recount could tighten the schedule even more.

But Councilor Matt O'Malley (West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain), who is not running for re-election this year, said that long term, the city could avoid all these preliminary scheduling issues - and issues related to the Jewish holidays, which have come up in the past - by moving the preliminary elections to the spring, similar to the way the state runs elections for elected federal positions.

O'Malley predicted the move would not only end scheduling issues but help increase participation.

Councilor Kenzie Bok (Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Fenway, Mission Hill) said she was a bit hesitant to move the preliminary election date to just a week after Labor Day, because , Boston voters often pay relatively little attention to municipal elections until after Labor Day, and that this fall, with more and more people vaccinated, candidates would need the extra time to do the shoe-leather politicking of getting to know voters at their doors.

Tavares said that, in the worst case, the Elections Department "will make elections work as we always do."

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo (Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale) asked why the city couldn't move the final election further into November to allow for more time. Tavares said that, unlike moving the preliminary date, moving the final election would require an act of the state legislature.

Although Tavares and councilors praised mail-in voting last year for the way it increased turnout, nobody suggested moving Boston municipal elections, which traditionally have low turnout, to even-numbered years along with state and federal elections.


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Voting closed 29

I think you mean June 21st, not Sept. 21?

Voting closed 15

Boston preliminaries are in September.

Voting closed 19

Is the city blocked from totally dropping the preliminary election and just doing ranked choice in the general election with all the candidates?

Or did last year's ballot question have to pass before that can happen?

Voting closed 23

My bet is that Boston couldn't do it without changing their City Charter, which would require an act of the legislature (among other things).

Voting closed 14

What's a preliminary election? Is that what happens in a single party system?

Voting closed 18

In Massachusetts, unlike in other states, local elected offices are officially considered "non partisan" and so we don't have party primaries for them, but instead have "preliminaries" to whittle the field down to the number of open seats available in the final election times two (so two candidates for mayor on the November ballot but up to eight for the four open city-council seats).

The system is an old one and dates back to the days when there were actually thundering herds of Republicans in Massachusetts.

We have had actual non-Democrats hold local office in Boston, maybe as recently as 2019 (depending on how Althea Garrison was feeling at any given moment). City Councilor Chuck Turner was a registered Green-Rainbow member and before him, well, John Sears was an actual Republican (also, Tim McCarthy, while a registered Democrat, I think, supported the Republican candidate for governor the last time around).

Voting closed 14

"Moving back"?
Changing to an earlier date is moving up.

Voting closed 11