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City Officials Say Charter Review’s Proposed Election Reforms Pose Legal Challenges

City Officials Say Charter Review’s Proposed Election Reforms Pose Legal Challenges

A Wednesday meeting of the Cambridge City Council to discuss recommendations proposed by the Charter Review Committee ended without a final resolution.
A Wednesday meeting of the Cambridge City Council to discuss recommendations proposed by the Charter Review Committee ended without a final resolution. By Julian J. Giordano
By Elyse C. Goncalves and Tilly R. Robinson, Crimson Staff Writers

Cambridge City officials raised legal and practical concerns about local election reform recommendations made by the Charter Review Committee, adding further uncertainty to a process already marred by confusion.

The concerns pose another set of obstacles for the Cambridge City Council, which has struggled to decide how to proceed after the committee — a group of 15 residents that began reviewing the structure of the city’s government in August 2022 — failed to make a decision on whether the city should ditch its current form of government, which involves an appointed city manager and an elected council.

Instead, the committee emerged in January with recommendations that could apply to both the current form of government and an alternative system with a directly-elected “strong” mayor, including shifting municipal elections to even years, allowing noncitizens to vote, and lowering the voting age to 16. Other recommendations included creating a randomly-selected Resident Assembly and codifying a goal-setting process for the Council.

But the three proposed reforms to city elections drew pushback from Cambridge’s Law Department and Election Commission, which presented their concerns to the Council at a Wednesday meeting.

In the presentation, Ethridge A. King — a member of the Election Commission — said expanding voter eligibility to 16 year-olds and non-citizens poses substantial legal and logistical challenges.

Cambridge would be required to keep voter records, including the addresses and personal information of 16 year-olds and non-citizens, he said, but the Massachusetts system for recording voter registration follows state law, which requires voters to both be U.S. citizens and 18 years of age or older.

“If Cambridge adopts this recommendation, we’ll have to come up with a system that can house the 16- and 17-year-olds, and also have a rigorous process to validate identities and registrations,” King said, adding that the city would have to ensure that information for voters under 18 is kept private.

In addition, King said that publicizing the records of non-citizen voters could put individuals at “risk of identification, fines, time in prison, deportation, or denial of current or future application for citizenship” — possibly deterring non-citizens from participating in local elections.

The Election Commission also raised concerns around the Charter Review Committee’s recommendation to move municipal elections to even-numbered years to align them with state and federal elections in order to increase turnout.

In the past four municipal election cycles, between 30 and 35 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Turnout in state and federal elections is typically much higher, peaking at around 75 percent in presidential election years.

But Tanya L. Ford, the Election Commission’s executive director, described the realignment as a logistical challenge.

Because Cambridge’s elections use proportional representation, they cannot be added to state or federal ballots, Ford said. The Massachusetts secretary of state’s office has also indicated that it will oppose any legislation to add local questions to a state ballot.

Therefore, if municipal elections were conducted at the same time as state and federal elections, voters would receive at least three additional ballots: one for City Council races, one for School Committee elections, and a third for ballot questions.

Ford added that to make the shift, Cambridge would need additional polling locations, more storage space for ballots, and a dramatic increase in both poll workers and tabulation staff.

“Every level of complexity adds to the likelihood of errors,” she said.

Because all three measures would change election procedures and deviate from existing state law, the City Council would have to send them in a home rule petition to the Massachusetts legislature for approval. The legislature could choose to accept the city’s petition in its entirety, reject it, table it, or send it back to the City Council for revisions.

Both acting City Solicitor Megan Bayer and Michael J. Ward — the director of the Collins Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who consulted with the Charter Review Committee — said the legislature would be likely to accept smaller tweaks to the charter. Larger changes, Ward said, are more likely to be killed or stalled indefinitely.

In 2002, the City Council petitioned to lower the voting age to 17 for Cambridge municipal elections, but the effort died in the state legislature.

Presenters at the Wednesday meeting said that they or their colleagues in the Law Department and Election Commission had met with the Charter Review Committee to discuss election logistics, particularly the challenges surrounding even-year elections.

Ward said that, after those meetings, the Charter Review Committee decided to issue their recommendations because they saw “a real case to put those forward even knowing they are going to be challenging, or slow, and in some cases not possible.”

In particular, Ward said, the committee thought the proposal for even-year municipal elections was “so important and so valuable because of the differentials in turnout that have been seen in other parts of the country that it was worth putting up a fight for.”

As the meeting drew to a close, City Council members debated how to move forward with discussions of the Charter Review Committee’s recommendations in what proved to be the meeting’s tensest exchange.

Councilor Joan F. Pickett, who serves on the Government Operations committee, argued that the committee should discuss the proposals before bringing recommendations to the full Council. But Councilors Sumbul Siddiqui — who served as Cambridge mayor until this year — and Burhan Azeem advocated for the full Council to be involved in charter review conversations.

Councilor Paul F. Toner, who chaired the meeting, called a vote to adjourn, and the meeting concluded before councilors reached a resolution.

—Staff writer Elyse C. Goncalves can be reached at elyse.goncalves@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @e1ysegoncalves or on Threads @elyse.goncalves.

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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