Rapid Reaction to 2015 City Election

Yesterday was a good day for incumbents in Lowell. Every one of them who was on the ballot for reelection was successful. I’m not sure anyone was surprised by that although some, especially the council challengers and their closest supporters, may have hoped otherwise.

Of the 59,265 people registered to vote, 10,714 went to the polls yesterday. That’s down from the roughly 11,500 who voted in the 2013 city election, but about the same as voted in 2011. By way of contrast, in the 2012 presidential election, which also featured Elizabeth Warren v Scott Brown, 34,000 people voted in Lowell.

Even though far fewer people voted in the September 29, 2015 preliminary than participated yesterday, that earlier election was still a pretty good indicator of who would win in the general election. Here’s how yesterday’s top 10 finishers did in the preliminary:

  1. Rita Mercier finished 1st in the 2015 preliminary election
  2. Rodney Elliott finished 2nd
  3. Ed Kennedy finished 6th
  4. John Leahy finished 3rd
  5. Bill Samaras finished 8th
  6. Jim Milinazzo finished 5th
  7. Dan Rourke finished 4th
  8. Corey Belanger finished 10th
  9. Jim Leary finished 7th
  10. Vesna Nuon finished 9th

Now let’s look at how these ten did in the 2013 election when all but Leary were on the council ballot:

  1. Rita Mercier finished 1st in the 2013 general election
  2. Rodney Elliott finished 2nd
  3. Ed Kennedy finished 3rd
  4. John Leahy finished 9th
  5. Bill Samaras finished 6th
  6. Jim Milinazzo finished 5th
  7. Dan Rourke finished 4th
  8. Corey Belanger finished 7th
  9. Jim Leary finished n/a
  10. Vesna Nuon finished 15th

The number of votes received by council candidates this year when compared to last election held steady, more or less. For example, Rita Mercier received 6228 votes this year and 6358 in 2013; Rodney Elliott received 5420 votes this year and 5312 in 2013; and Ed Kennedy received 4797 votes this year and 5091 in 2013. Because 6% fewer people voted this year than in 2013, the percentage of the vote received by these councilors actually went up. Contrast that with the school committee, where there was a remarkable drop in vote totals. Because only two incumbent school committee members ran for reelection, we only have two points of comparison, but consider that in this election, Steve Gendron received 4778 votes but in 2013 got 6365 votes; and Connie Martin received 4119 votes this time, compared to 5518 in 2013. For both, that was a 25% drop in total vote received. However, the drop made no difference in their order of finish. In 2013, Gendron finished third while in 2015 he finished first. In 2013, Martin finished fourth while this year she finished third. I do think that one factor in the drop in total votes for school committee candidates was the presence of twelve candidates on the ballot – with so many choices, the votes cast were more widely distributed – but the school committee this term also wrestled with some controversial topics (such as the hiring of a new superintendent and the ongoing contract negotiations with teachers) which may have contributed to the across the board reduction in vote totals.

Who will be the next mayor? In my almost fifty years of watching city councils in Lowell, nothing can divide a new council more than that question. I haven’t talked to any councilors about this so I have no insight who has the ability to put together the five votes needed. Hopefully any divisiveness that results from that process won’t linger into the new term.

As more detailed turnout statistics become available, I’ll take a closer look at where the votes came from. If history is any guide, the answer would be mostly from Belvidere, but sometimes interesting trends arise. For example, in the increase in turnout from 2011 (10,000 voters) to 2013 (11,500), thirty-two of the city’s thirty-three precincts showed an increase in voter participation. The one precinct that had fewer voters in 2013 than in 2011 was Ward 8, Precinct 3 which is the upper Highlands (which is also my precinct). Did that downward trend continue for that neighborhood? Is it happening elsewhere in the city? Did any precincts with historically low levels of participation show an increase this time?

The answer to that last question will also be relevant to positing reasons why none of the six Cambodian-American candidates on the ballot (Vesna Nuon, Paul Ratha Yem, Pan So, and Cheth Khim for council; and Kamara Kay and Dominik Lay for school committee) were elected. Vesna came close, finishing tenth compared to his fifteenth place finish in 2013, but his vote totals didn’t change all that much (3550 this year vs 3261 in 2013).

Finally, a word about getting election results: City Hall has them faster. During the past few state elections, I’ve wandered down to City Hall after the polls closed and loitered with other members of “the media” in an out-of-the-way spot while poll workers and police officers lug boxes of ballots and the vote counting black boxes into the basement of City Hall. As soon as the data cards from all 33 voting machines (one per precinct) are fed into the computer, the “unofficial” but official election office results are printed and distributed to members of the “media” who are present.

Last night, that contingent was a small one – just me. As soon as I got the list, I snapped photos of the council and school committee results and posted them to Facebook and Twitter. My tweet with the council results was posted at 8:57 pm and the school committee at 8:58. The Lowell Sun’s Grant Welker and Amelia Pak-Harvey were both at the Blue Shamrock, monitoring results from there. Welker’s tweet with the council results was posted at 9:06 am and Pak-Harvey’s school committee report came at 9:02.

Besides the time lag, however slight, some of the numbers were different. Here are the top ten council finishers showing the “unofficial” city hall numbers from 8:57 pm followed by the Blue Shamrock numbers from 9:06:

Rita Mercier – 6228 – 6228
Rodney Elliott – 5420 – 5420
Ed Kennedy – 4794 – 4794
John Leahy – 4566 – 4571
Bill Samaras – 4540 – 4550
Jim Milinazzo – 4434 – 4437
Dan Rourke – 4390 – 4390
Corey Belanger – 4158 – 4158
Jim Leary – 4011 – 4015
Vesna Nuon – 3550 – 3550

Then for the school committee:

Steve Gendron – 4778 – 4778
Jackie Doherty – 4186 – 4159
Connie Martin – 4119 – 4119
Bob Hoey – 3872 – 3878
Robert Gignac – 3807 – 3707
Andy Descoteaux – 3772 – 3799
Dennis Mercier – 3623 – 3623

The discrepancies are all small and insignificant, unless you’re Bob Gignac or Andy Descoteaux. The Blue Shamrock numbers understated Gignac’s total by 100 votes and overstated Descoteaux’s by 27 which caused them to change places in the final tally and also make Dennis Mercier’s seventh place finish seem a lot closer.

It has long been clear that the Lowell Election Commission’s primary concern has been to get the numbers right, however long that takes. Because of the system now in place, both computer and human, the results come in remarkably fast (the printout I received at City Hall was time stamped 8:52 pm, less than an hour after the polls closed). So congratulations to the Lowell Election Commission and the Election Office for delivering both speed and accuracy.

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