At Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting, there was an extended discussion of efforts the city is making (or not making) to promote the upcoming November 7, 2023, municipal election. The discussion was prompted by a Councilor Wayne Jenness motion that requested the City Manager “have the proper department promote early voting for the city election on social media and other avenues.” A half dozen residents, mostly young people including at least on Lowell High student, spoke in support of the motion.
The speakers urged the city to do more to increase participation in the election and most Councilors echoed that call. Unfortunately, the only tool available this close to the election is, as City Manager Tom Golden suggested, to increase postings on the City’s social media accounts.
Understanding voter turnout in city elections requires some context. In every odd-numbered year there is a city election. In every even-numbered year there is a state election. However, the offices on the ballot in state elections vary from election to election with the most important – President and Governor – occurring in alternating four year cycles. For example, in 2024 and every four years after that, there will be a Presidential election, while in 2026 and every four years after that, there will be a gubernatorial election.
History shows that voter turnout varies substantially based on what office is on the ballot in that election. Twenty years ago, Lowell had roughly 55,000 registered voters; today it has about 70,000. Let’s look at the numbers:
Presidential Election voter turnout in Lowell
- 2020 (Biden v Trump) – 38,982
- 2016 (Trump v Clinton) – 37,346
- 2012 (Obama v Romney) – 34,226
- 2008 (Obama v McCain) – 31,905
- 2004 (Bush v Kerry) – 29,232
- 2000 (Bush v Gore) – 27,435
Gubernatorial Election voter turnout in Lowell
- 2022 (Healey v Diehl) – 21,354
- 2018 (Baker v Gonzalez) – 27,024
- 2014 (Baker v Coakley) – 21,268
- 2010 (Patrick v Baker) – 22,520
- 2006 (Patrick v Healey) – 21,348
- 2002 (Romney v O’Brien) – 21,584
City Election voter turnout in Lowell
- 2021 – 12,095
- 2019 – 11,075
- 2017 – 13,916
- 2015 – 10,714
- 2013 – 11,581
- 2011 – 9,946
- 2009 – 13,464
- 2007 – unavailable
- 2005 – 12,653
- 2003 – 12,222
Averaging the above, we find that when choosing the President, 33,188 people in Lowell vote; when choosing the Governor, 22,477 people vote; and when choosing City Councilors, 11,963 people vote.
Whenever I find myself speaking to UMass Lowell classes about Lowell politics. I always cite these turnout numbers and point out that they should be the other way around since a City Councilor has far more influence on the everyday life of a Lowell resident than does the President of the United States. City Councilors are responsible for the water we drink, the streets we drive on, the parks we enjoy for leisure, removing the trash we create, keeping us safe in our homes and on the streets, and many other essential tasks.
Yet despite the importance of City Councilors, far fewer people participate in the selection of Councilors than vote in elections for other offices. Why is that so? The most common answer from young people is they know little about the workings of city government and know even less about the candidates running for local office. Also, talk about the Presidential election is inescapable whereas news about local elections is difficult to find and not particularly compelling when compared to all the other things that compete for our attention.
There was hope that the new system of district representation would bring City Councilors closer to the residents of the neighborhoods they represent which would make individual residents, especially those of under-represented neighborhoods, become more engaged in the political process. Rather than focusing on the few places in the city where the bulk of the votes came from and neglecting the rest, a district system keeps a candidate’s focus on their district, in theory at least. Whether that translates to higher turnout remains to be seen.
As for how vigorously city government is promoting the forthcoming municipal election, what I found on the city’s website is more procedural than inspirational. The front page of the city’s website announces “Municipal Election Early Voting: October 25, 2023 to November 3, 2023.” If you click on the “Read on . . .” box, the expanded blurb says early voting “runs every day” from Wednesday, October 25 until Friday, November 3, and that it takes place in the Mayor’s Reception Room on the second floor of City Hall.
Then it urges you to “check the full calendar for specific hours.” That link takes you to a calendar that shows the daily times when early voting is available which mostly track the opening and closing times of City Hall (8am to 5pm and Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday; 8am to 8pm on Tuesday; and 8pm to noon on Friday). Notably, early voting is also available on both Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 3pm. In all cases, the early voting site is the Mayor’s Reception Room on the second floor of City Hall.
This calendar page also contains information on “applying for an early vote by mail ballot.” Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, Massachusetts had one of the most restrictive absentee ballot laws in the country, but the pandemic made mail in ballots a necessity and the legislature has subsequently amended state law to adopt “no excuse” mail in voting, meaning you don’t have to specify that you’ll be out of town, or immobile in order to vote by mail.
Which does not mean the process is easy. The “calendar page” directs you to the Secretary of State’s website or says to call the Elections Office at 978-674-4046. On the Secretary of State’s main elections webpage you find a Voting by Mail link that allows you to print a Massachusetts Vote by Mail Application and an on-line Mail in Ballot Application (it starts by verifying your voter registration status but then lets you request a mail-in ballot be mailed to you).
I’ll illustrate how the rest of it works by sharing my experience:
- On Wednesday, October 11, 2023, I printed, filled in, and mailed by application for a mail in ballot to the Lowell election office.
- On Friday, October 20, 2023, I received my ballot in the mail.
- On Monday, October 23, 2023, I mailed my completed ballot to the Lowell Election Office.
The Secretary of State has a helpful “Track My Mail In Ballot” page that allows you to check the status of your mailed in ballot. Entering my information, the system says the Lowell Election Office received my completed ballot on Thursday, October 26, 2023, and that it has been “Accepted” which means it has been “submitted to be counted.”
So in my case, the system has worked very well. But I started early. Now, time is running short to vote by mail, so if you do choose to vote that way, consider dropping off your completed ballot at City Hall rather than mailing it back. The city’s Vote by Mail page has more guidance on doing that.
Also on Tuesday night, the City Council adopted a substantial change in the city’s zoning ordinance to comply with the state’s MBTA Communities Law. At Tuesday’s public hearing, not a single person spoke in favor of the proposal and not a single person spoke in opposition to it. City Manager Tom Golden said adopting this new zoning is a prerequisite to receiving many state grants, but it is also an opportunity to grow the density of housing around the Gallagher Terminal. He wants Lowell to lead the way on this and asked DPD Director Yovanni Baez-Rose to elaborate. She explained that the deadline for approving a plan like this is December 2024, so Lowell is way ahead of schedule. She said this new zoning will “unlock development opportunities” and “removes barriers to development.” She closed by saying “We will see a significant amount of new housing developed because of this.”
When Mayor Sokhary Chau opened the floor to Council comments there was silence. After waiting a moment, the Mayor asked the Clerk to call the roll. The zoning change was adopted unanimously by the Council.
Enacted by the State Legislature in 2021, the MBTA Communities Law requires the 175 cities and towns serviced by the MBTA to allow multi-family housing within a half-mile of any commuter rail, subway, or bus station. The law also requires housing density to be allowed at much higher levels than what is allowed by most existing zoning codes, and greatly reduces requirements for parking for new housing. The goal, obviously, is to increase the number of housing units.
In Lowell, the area within a half mile of the Gallagher Transportation Terminal is either industrial or already densely developed with residential structures, so adding more will not alter “the character of the neighborhood.” Consequently, there was little opposition to this zoning change.
While that may be the case in Lowell, it is different elsewhere. Just this Friday, the Boston Globe had a story about the town of Arlington’s adoption of zoning amendments that comply with the MBTA law at a recent town meeting. Although town meeting representatives voted overwhelmingly for the proposal, it was difficult to get to that point.
For Arlington, which at 46,000 people is one of the largest communities in Massachusetts to be governed by Town Meeting, the process was not an easy one. The town held more than 25 meetings on the zoning rules, and opponents put out public statements and gathered signatures on a petition to put more limits on the new zoning rules. Tensions ran so high at one meeting of the town’s redevelopment board that the police had to be called.
Even Wednesday night, Town Meeting members who were opposed to the plan proposed several amendments — all rejected — that would have sharply cut it back. One resident suggested the town forgo the gas ban pilot in order to spend more time working on the zoning, and called the land-use tweaks “the largest changes in Arlington in our lifetime.”
The story goes on to say, “MBTA Communities has turned into something of a local political battleground that has pitted some towns against the state, and some residents against town officials who are trying to comply with the rules.”
Although Lowell has been fortunate to sidestep controversy over the MBTA Communities Law, it’s important to watch how this plays out in other places since it is the opening salvo in state government’s attempt to wrestle control of zoning away from local communities, something that could be more relevant to Lowell in the future.