BOSTON’s SMALL VOTER PARTICIPATION ON SEPT 6TH AND WHAT IT MEANS

Hayden

^^ Kevin Hayden won election to a full term as Suffolk DA — but in a low-turnout race.

A mere 84,434 Boston voters participated in September 6th’s State primary. This totals about 19 percent of the City’s registered. That’s a bit higher than recent special elections in which about 12 to 15 percent of eligibles voted, but hardly encouraging. In 2018, 92,800 Boston people voted on primary day.

I suppose there’s at least some good news here. In the 2014 State primary, ony 58,832 Bostonians voted. In 2010, the number was 51,780.

There has been an even lower number: in 2016, only 34,424 voters cast a primary ballot. That total however, can be excused : there was no major contest being voted on. Contrarily, in 2020, when Joe Kennedy III and Ed Markey butted heads for one of our US Senate seats, 138,646 Bostonians voted — a total similar to the turnout for a hotly contested Mayor’s race.

Yet even the 138,646 number cannot be applauded. 40, 50, 60 years ago, Boston election turnouts numbered in the 250,000 range. Individual neighborhood numbers loom even larger. 50 years ago, South Boston could turn out 9000 votes in an election. Today, 3000 Southies seems an upper limit. In the 1983 Mayoral election, 21,000 votes were cast in Ward 20 — more there than in the 1980 Presidential election ! Today, on primary day, ward 20 voters number barely 9800 votes cast.

How about East Boston ? Once upon a time Ward One saw 7000 to even 10,000 votes cast. This year, 3209. In the 2018 State primary, the Ward One number was 3532. In the big 2020 primary, 3548. In the 2015 special election wherein Adrian Madaro won his State Rep seat, 3531 voted. That’s about a 15 percent turnout, well below the City’s low average. Maybe we should be grateful for the 3500 ? In the 2016 special elction for State Senator, with an East Boston candidate running along with four others, only 2751 votes were cast. The totals in this year’s two special elctions were even lower !

What then is going on here ? Why are fewer than one in every five registered voters bothering to participate in primaries and “specials” ? Why, in East Boston and South Boston, is that fraction an even lower one in six, or one in seven ? Murray Levin once wrote an entire book about what he called “the alienated voter,” but alienation is not what I see here. Alienation suggests a reaction, a purpose. What I see is utter indifference. Our local elections simply don’t matter any more, to anyone but the activists.

Perhaps the following observations tell us what has happened.

1. When we more or less eliminated patronage in favor of hiring meritocrats, we eliminated what had been ordinary voters’ number one motivation for getting involved.

2. Those who sought a City or Suffolk county job (or a job at Boston Edison, for those too were often patronage) had families — big families — who would ALL vote for their job-seeking family member. Those big families made Boston their permanent home.

3. Today there are almost no families in the City; transient singles dominate. (Statistic on point : enrollment in the Boston school system numbers about 48,000 — down from about 92,000 fifty years ago.) Hardly any of these often newly-arrived singles feel any connection to local elections nor have any reason to. They’re well paid, in bio medical or academia or similar institution shielded from day to day hassles (and often in charge of City agendas via their economic power), and they are as likely to be transferred to a similar job in another city as to stay in Boston for any length of time, much less start a family here and commit to raisng said family in the City. (In fact, often said new families move out when it’s time to enroll kids in school, the parents having scant confidence in the Boston schools performance.)

4. When patronage was eliminated, we left the political arena to ideologues who are absolutely certain they are right and everybody else is wrong  — which of course turns off ordinary voters who are just trying to get ahead 

5. Once basic campaign work stopped being done in person, a lot of it by patronage families, the only recourse was to $$$$ to hire campaign work & script the messaging. Result : moneyed interests now control the candidates and the agenda.

This is oligarchy, not democracy.

I do not know how we reverse course, and for sure no one is even trying to. Nor should we forget that it was Mayor Kevin White who, although the most machine-oriented of Mayors, inititiated the big money-real estate developer impetus that now controls and owns the City, with the active encouargement of City hall during the 27 years that Tom Menino and Marty Walsh occupied the Mayor’s office. (not that their decisions are in any way digfferent from the exact same strategies employed nationwide by almost every major office candidate.)

Ordinary voters see that City government isn’t being operated for their benefit. Heck, they aren’t sure if even our mostly diligently-operated State government is being operated with average voters in mind. Voters see what is being said by ideologues of various sorts, and they hear the platitudes of the moment being spoken by politicians who as a matter of course say the least that they can, or with the least meaning beyond shibboleths, slogans, and buzzwords which everybody knows have no meaning except to the activists who demand the right lip service. Ordinary voters see and hear and then go about their jobs and their chores, just trying to get by, to keep things in one piece, to have some fun now and then and to be left alone by politicians who come around only at election time.

Although what I have written so far is how I see things, I am sure it’s hardly the whole story. Voters do turn out increasingy, in big, national elections with existential import. This is good. But a democracy is healthiest when it works the most local elections first. If we see all power surging to the center and from the center — if we no longer see our local, city governments as the first line of our political aspirations, then where is our sense of community ? Of neighborhood ? Of determinng our own destiny on the streets where we live and work among people we know or soon get to know ?

Maybe my view is an old fashioned one. Maybe a vast, billion dollar, centralied politics is quite ok. Yet I’m not convinced by this maybe. When by far the most frequent response I get from voters when I door knock voters in a local campaign is “nobody listens to us,” something is badly wrong.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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