Here is today’s Substack email.
There was no City Council meeting this week. The Council cancelled it because it fell on Election Day. Speaking of which, here are the results of the 2023 Lowell Municipal Election:
At Large (top three win)
Erik Gitschier – 3,837
Rita Mercier – 3,723
Vesna Nuon – 3,405
Corey Belanger – 2,874
Bobby Tugbiyele – 2,472
Virak Uy – 1,552
District 1 (top one wins)
Daniel Rourke – 794
Corey Robinson – 562
Martin Hogan – 141
John Leahy – 1,332
Wayne Jenness – 467
Amada Gregory – 136
Kimberly Scott – 513
Susie Chhoun – 275
Sokhary Chau – 476
Justin Ford – 182
Paul Yem – 355
Fru Nkimbeng – 140
John Descoteaux – 799
Ty Chum – 387
At Large (top two win)
Jacqueline Doherty – 4,668
Connie Martin – 4,441
SC District 1 (top one wins)
Fred Bahou – 1,193
Stacey Thompson – 923
SC District 2
Eileen Delrossi – 1,031
SC District 3
David Conway – 1,830
SC District 4
Dominik Lay – 943
Some observations on these results: Overall, it was a good day for incumbents. Everyone currently on the Council who ran for reelection won, and among all incumbents, only School Committee member Stacey Thomson lost. She was defeated by Fred Bahou, who is currently one of Lowell’s representatives on the Greater Lowell Technical School Committee, an office he has held for at least a dozen years. Bahou also became well-known in the Highlands through his ownership of a variety store for many years.
Incumbent School Committee member Susie Chhoun failed to jump from the School Committee to the City Council, losing to incumbent Councilor Kim Scott in District 5 by a wide margin. Historically, moving from the School Committee to the Council has been a challenge, plus Chhoun had not won her School Committee seat outright, but had finished second in the last election to Andy Descoteaux. Chhoun joined the Committee when Descoteaux resigned his seat in 2022.
Although incumbent City Councilor Vesna Nuon was reelected to an at large seat, he slipped from topping the ticket in the last election to finishing third in the at large race this year. (In 2019 he finished second and in 2017 he finished first.) Although Councilor Nuon ended up voting against the controversial Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) zoning proposal, his consistent advocacy for the proposal up to the final vote likely cost him some votes given the vehemence of the opposition to that proposal and it’s likely that ADU opponents made up a disproportionately high number of those who voted in this year’s election given the low turnout.
Erik Gitschier not only topped the ticket in the at large Council race, he also became the first District Councilor under the recently-adopted hybrid system to make the jump from a district to an at large seat.
Also notable were the vote totals received by School Committee incumbents Jackie Doherty and Connie Martin. They were assured of victory because they were the only candidates in the at large race for the School Committee, but they still racked up vote totals higher than anyone else on the ballot.
Finally, although the next Mayor will not be elected for another eight weeks, if history is any guide, the campaign for that office began as soon as the votes were counted Tuesday night, and perhaps even earlier. Sometimes newly elected Councils quickly coalesce behind one candidate for Mayor, but just as often the Mayoral contest becomes a bitter affair that fractures new Councils before they even take office. It will be interesting to see which type this Mayoral election will be.
The biggest story from Tuesday’s election was the historically low number who voted. According to the unofficial numbers I have, of the 75,294 people registered to vote in Lowell, only 7,516 cast ballots in this election. That’s 9.98 percent.
However, turnout percentages can be misleading. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the Motor Voter Act, made it much easier for individuals to register to vote, making it almost automatic whenever someone obtains or renews a driver’s license (hence, the “motor voter” name). I’m all for making it easier to register to vote, but a consequence of linking that to renewing your driver’s license is that individuals who would not have registered to vote otherwise and who are unlikely to vote in the city or any other election get added to the voting rolls which swells the number of registered voters with people unlikely to vote. Although the population of Lowell has increased steadily over the past two decades, the number of registered voters has gone up at an even faster rate.
For that reason, the actual number of people who vote, rather than the percentage who vote, is a better indicator of the level of participation in one election relative to another.
For example, the number of people who voted in the 2021 election, the first under the hybrid at large and district system, was 12,145. The total vote in this election was 7,516 which is a decline of 4,629 votes or 38 percent.
Participation dropped more than 30 percent in each of the eight council districts with some having half as many voters turn out in this election compared to 2021. Here are the turnout numbers for each district, with the current Councilor representing that district indicated:
District 1 (Rourke) – 2,208 voted in 2021; 1,039 voted in 2023; a drop of 49 percent.
District 2 (Robinson) – 1,447 voted in 2021; 729 voted in 2023; a drop of 50 percent.
District 3 (Leahy) – 2,641 voted in 2021; 1,774 voted in 2023; a drop of 33 percent.
District 4 (Jenness) – 1,059 voted in 2021; 655 voted in 2023; a drop of 38 percent.
District 5 (Scott) – 1,200 voted in 2021; 813 voted in 2023; a drop of 32 percent.
District 6 (Chau) – 1,067 voted in 2021; 705 voted in 2023; a drop of 34 percent.
District 7 (Yem) – 891 voted in 2021; 535 voted in 2023; a drop of 40 percent.
District 8 (Gitschier) – 1,812 voted in 2021; 1,266 voted in 2023; a drop of 30 percent.
The primary objective of switching from an all at large system to the current mix of at large and district representation was to make the city’s elected representatives more diverse. The 2021 election succeeded in doing that and, for the City Council at least, the diversity achieved in the last election remained intact. (Although with only two of eleven Councilors being women, the body could use greater gender balance, but that was not the purpose of the lawsuit that forced the change.) On the other hand, the School Committee, with the departure of Stacey Thompson and Susie Chhoun, and the arrival of Dave Conway and Fred Bahou, will be less diverse.
But a secondary objective of the new system was to increase participation, especially in neighborhoods in which turnout was disproportionately low. The thinking was that when each neighborhood had its own seat on the City Council, those running for that seat would focus their attention on people in that neighborhood and not those in the one or two neighborhoods with the highest turnout as was the case under the all at large system.
It’s unwise to draw sweeping conclusions from just two elections but given the citywide drop in turnout of 38 percent it could be argued that the new system is having the exact opposite effect on turnout than was intended.
Why might that be the case? I suspect that the same electoral dynamics that concentrated power in the Belvidere neighborhood under the all at large system, have concentrated power in the district system in the hands of those living in that district who were already voting.
When running for office, you have limited time, money, and methods for reaching voters. To maximize your return, you focus those limited resources on the people most likely to vote which are the people who have a history of voting in past elections. Those are the people who get visits from candidates going door-to-door and those are the people who get mailers from candidates who can afford them.
Here’s a hypothetical to illustrate: Candidate A has $3000 to spend on a mass mailing. When you factor in printing, addressing, and postage that will yield 6000 pieces of mail. On average, each district has approximately 9,500 registered voters. Would Candidate A get a better return by mailing one piece to each of 6000 voters in the district, or by mailing three pieces at weekly intervals to the 2000 people in that district who are most likely to vote given their past voting history? Most people in politics, at least those most successful at winning elections, would opt for more mailings to fewer voters. As a result, the people who are already voting are the one who receive the most contact and the most attention as the election approaches. Those who have not voted before, or who only have voted in state elections, get little attention and, predictably, don’t vote in the city election. The candidates are doing nothing wrong; this is how you win an election. But it does illustrate a structural problem in the system, especially if you believe that the more people who vote the better it is for the city.
So if candidates are not going to work to increase turnout, who will? Certainly, the city could do more to publicize the election and the methods of voting. Just a week or two before the election, Councilors raised questions about what was being done to inform residents of the election. The response at that relatively late hour was to increase output on the City’s social media accounts. Given the fragmented nature of social media in 2023, the effectiveness of that effort is questionable, plus many of the social media users who would see such posts would be among those who were already going to vote. Maybe the City Council can start asking about what the city can do to promote turnout in local elections two weeks into their new term rather than two weeks before the election.
But turnout is not solely the responsibility of city government. The nonpartisan grassroots organization Lowell Votes does great work in improving voter participation, so perhaps more people who care about this issue can become involved with that outfit or even just donate. Other nonprofits like Coalition for a Better Acre and Community Teamwork make efforts to inform clients of the election and the importance of participating, but there is always more that could be done, especially in local schools and at UML and MCC.
There is no magic formula. It’s all about generating information and excitement. That’s why 39,000 Lowellians vote for President, but only 7,500 vote for City Councilors.
Happy Veterans Day to all who have served in the military.