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| December 3, 2015
There is a stark truth about municipal elections in Boston and other communities around the country: They favor white, better-educated, older, and well-connected voters.
In a minority-majority city with a growing, relatively young, and increasingly diverse population like Boston, that means vast numbers of residents have little or no voice in their local government. Election turnout numbers tell the story.
One month ago today, 13.63 percent of registered voters in Boston—50,833 people—went to the polls, city figures show. That virtually matches the modern era record for low turnout of 13.60 percent, set in 2007.
So, more than 86 percent of the 372,889 registered voters stayed away. Another 200,000 eligible residents aren’t even registered to vote, according to the city census. Combined, those figures show that in last month’s election, slightly less than 10 percent of eligible voters in Boston chose municipal leaders and helped shaped the direction the city will take in the years ahead.
“Inequality of voice comes down to representation. If you have 10 percent participation, that is not the will of the people,” said Suffolk University professor Rachael Cobb, Chair of the Government Department who has studied municipal elections for 15 years.
Many people shrug at abysmal turnout figures. This year’s city election was dull, they say, with little city council drama and no hot race for mayor—let alone governor or president—to spark interest. Donald Trump was clearly not on the ballot.
But experts, including Cobb, say dismal turnout in off-cycle municipal elections has an insidious effect, as electoral clout is concentrated in the hands of a few, including special interest groups, like city unions and supporters of entrenched incumbents. In turn, elected officials are prone to serve the narrow needs of those voters who return them to office, Cobb said.
On the surface, Boston seems to have broken with the pattern in some ways. Voters who did go to the polls in November ousted the two longest-serving incumbents with a combined 50 years in City Hall and replaced them with two women who have never held office. Those results doubled the number of women on the 13-member council to four; the two incumbent women comfortably topped the at-large race.
While those results drew some headlines on election night, in the end only nine of the city’s 225 precincts saw turnout at or above 25 percent.
Corrosive Effects of Low Turnout
Cobb says research she and others have conducted documents the effects of low turnout in off-cycle municipal elections. A key takeaway: The timing of elections is critical.
“It influences who votes, who wins, and the policies that result,” wrote Sarah F. Anzia from the University of California Berkeley, who spoke two days after Election Day at a joint The Ford Hall Forum/Scholar Strategy Network event at Suffolk University in Boston.
Cobb’s research found:
For Cobb, it boils down to one basic ideal: equality.
“Inequality has grown in every facet of American life. It’s not just income inequality, it’s also in political participation,” she said.
“There are a lot of proposals for ways to reduce income inequality and raising the minimum wage is one of them. But changing the political process to make it more open to encourage people to participate is another one,” said Cobb.
She said as voter participation increases, trends of exclusion begin to reverse as more varied voices influence municipal direction. Cobb believes there are solutions to the problem of lower voter participation in municipal elections:
In May of 2014, Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law election reforms that made several key changes, including establishing online voter registration last June and allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. The law permits early voting beginning in November 2016 for state and federal elections, but not for municipal elections.
In addition to increasing voter participation, Cobb said combining election dates would lower costs for cities and towns, which often must pay for elections with few contested races during off-cycle years.
Boston District 4 Councilor Frank Baker, who ran unopposed last month, has proposed eliminating City Council-only elections, citing cost-saving as a reason. He filed a measure during election week to extend city council terms from two to four years so they would coincide with mayoral elections, which often attract twice as many voters.
Critics, however, say on-cycle elections will introduce more ill-informed voters to the process, complicate and lengthen ballots, draw attention away from local politics in favor of statewide or national races, and cause administrative headaches.
Entrenched system difficult to change
Over the last decade, state legislatures have considered hundreds of bills to consolidate elections. Virtually all have failed, in large part because groups that benefit from the off-cycle timing fight the change, and incumbents who won elections within the current framework have no incentive to increase participation, Cobb said.
Well-known Boston attorney Larry DiCara, a former city councilor and mayoral candidate, said he was involved in an effort with the late Mayor Kevin H. White in 1977 to align city council races and mayoral elections every four years, and to hold them in even-numbered years. The proposal passed City Council after a “very contested” debate, but died in the Legislature, he said.
“We tried it almost 40 years ago and the Legislature shot it down. Since then, nothing,” said DiCara, “We should look at every option to get more people out to vote.”
Nationally, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School reports that many states are actively working to make voting more difficult, regardless of the date. Since the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers in 33 states have introduced at least 113 bills that would restrict access to registration and voting.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Boston say those efforts to enact a “veritable flood of new laws” were substantially more likely to be introduced in states with larger African-American and non-citizen populations and higher minority turnout. Of 41 adopted voter restrictions passed from 2006-2011, 83 percent were passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures. “These are the kinds of measures most likely to reduce voting by Democrat-leaning constituencies,” reported the researchers, Keith Gumar Bentele and Erin E. O’Brien.
However, said O’Brien, this does not mean that solidly Democratic Massachusetts is a beacon of voter access. Prior to Gov. Patrick’s signature on the new election reform bill, a survey by Rock The Vote ranked the commonwealth 42nd in terms of ease of voter access.
“Incumbents in Massachusetts— regardless of party affiliation—generally favor the rules that got them in office,” she said.
For Cobb, getting more voter participation at the municipal level has another long-lasting value to democracy.
“This is the level where people have the most opportunity to be engaged. There are access points locally that don’t exist at the state or federal level. There are important skills to be learned and important contributions to be made. That expression of public will is vital to Democracy.”
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