It is almost election day. What? There’s an election? There is an election in Boston every November. Every 4 years of course is the Presidential election, as well as a host of down the ticket races, including Congress. The year following is the quadrennial election for Mayor of Boston as well as for the City Council, whose members serve two year terms. In the alternating even year are the gubernatorial election as well as the election of the legislative branch of government in Massachusetts, the bicameral General Court, comprising the State Senate and the House of Representatives. Also, at the Federal level, the House of Representatives is elected on a two year cycle, and one Senator is usually up for reelection as well. Which brings us to the last election in the four year cycle: Municipal elections which do not include the race for mayor. This is a race that gets little attention but it fascinates me, because it is the election where you can spot the “super voters,” the ones who show up for every election and hence are very valuable to a politician. It also shows me where the power in the city resides, as among these voters are ones who are interested in more than doing their civic duty. These voters have traditionally been concentrated in areas which produce many of the people who actually work with or in City Hall: West Roxbury, South Boston, Neponset, parts of Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain, but conspicuously NOT what most people often think of as Boston proper: downtown, the Back Bay, the South End, the Fenway, and certainly not any area near a University.
I will start this first entry dedicated to the analysis of elections in Boston by examining the voters. How many are there and how many turn out at the various elections in the cycle?
The most clear and easy conclusion to draw from looking at election data is that Presidential elections are a big deal and they generate the highest turnout of the four year election cycle. The number of votes cast in each of the last four elections in the cycle are as follows (note that I have also reported the number of ballots cast for each election in the previous cycle as well in parentheses):
2011: Municipal Election (City Council only- not Mayor)
Ballots cast: 63009 (2007-46,249)
2012: President, Senator, House of Representatives, State Legislature
Ballots cast: 255021 (2008-236,525)
2013: Municipal Elections: Mayor and City Council
Ballots cast: 142007 (2009-111,190)
2014: Governor, State Legislature, Federal House of Representatives
Ballots cast: 161, 115 (2010-164,312)
The most obvious point is that four times as many people voted for President than voted in City Council elections. A second point is that even the race for Governor and the General Court was only 2/3 as interesting as the race for President, attracting 90,000 fewer voters than the race for President. This, despite the fact that all the seats in the Federal House of Representatives were also on the ballot. The 2013 Mayoral race attracted almost as much attention as the 2014 Gubernatorial election. However, this was an open election for Mayor as Thomas Menino retired after serving for more than 20 years. By comparison the Mayoral race in 2009 saw only 111,190 ballots cast, 30,000 fewer than in 2013 and only 2/3 the number of ballots cast in the Gubernatorial election the following year.
In summary, municipal elections, particularly ones not involving a mayoral race, are of far less interest to the majority of residents of Boston. State elections, and elections for Congress also are of much less interest to residents of Boston than Presidential elections, but are 50% more interesting than Mayoral elections. The majority of people clearly are uninterested in their own local government despite the fact that it is the one with the most impact on their daily lives.
A second set of data shows us that voter apathy in Boston is high. The City of Boston Official Election Results for 2012 indicate that on November 6, 2012 there were 475,573 “residents” of Boston. Presumably this means United States Citizens who are over 18, i.e. potential voters as this number is only 3/4 the number of people listed as living in the city of Boston in 2010. If we take this number at face value, we can do a few calculations to examine voter turnout. The same set of data reports 69,388 inactive voters, which I understand to mean that they are either not showing up and have been placed on the list, did not respond to the city census, or have changed address and have not changed their voting status yet. Whatever it means, there are also 317, 754 “active voters,” for a total of 387142 “registered voters”. As I indicated above, 255,021 showed up to vote on election night, which was the highest turnout of the four year cycle by over 90,000 votes.
Thus, 80% of the potential voters were registered to vote in the 2012 election, and 67% of the total potential voter pool was considered to be comprised of “active voters”. Of these “active voters”, 80% showed up to vote. Taking the total “active and inactive voters”, 65.7% of all registered voters showed up to cast a ballot on November 6, 2012. Of the 476,000 “residents” 255,021 cast a ballot, meaning 53.6% of potential voters in Boston turned up on the night of the election in which the most votes were cast in an election in Boston for decades. So, a “good” night is when 1/2 the people in the city can be bothered to walk 5 minutes to their polling station and spend 10 minutes casting a ballot, 30 minutes of their life once every four years if all they want to do is vote for President. If a voter lived to be 100, he would spend about 10 hours of his entire life voting, and that includes the walk to and from the polling booth, which makes up the majority of the time and effort.
Finally, I want to look at the Municipal election of 2011 as a bellwether for the upcoming election. They are both similar in that there is no mayoral race, with one crucial difference: in 2011 there were 7 candidates for the four citywide seats; this year there are only 5 candidates for 4 seats. Of the nine district elections, only four incumbents have challengers, as was the case in 2011. So, for a majority of the voters, the upcoming election boils down to “do I like Annissa Essaibi George enough to vote out one of the four incumbents?” If that doesn’t get your pulse going….
I predict here that the 2015 Municipal Elections will be the lowest turnout election in the history of elections in Boston. 2007 was a bad year: 46,249 ballots cast out of 464,401 residents, less than 10% of the potential turnout. This was a year when there were 9 names on the ballot for the Citywide At-large seats, and four district councilors had challengers. I do not have access to all the data, but I have yet to come across a November election (i.e. not a special election) in Boston with lower turnout. After the election I will return with the results and a discussion of the relative voting influence of the various neighborhoods of Boston. It should be pretty easy with so few voters turning up.