Ahead of a diverse and high-profile mayoral race, a new poll shows 61 percent of Bostonians prefer aligning local city elections with presidential and national midterm contests, in a move proponents say would increase turnout and lessen racial disparities in the electorate.
Such a shift would mark a change for the city, which holds its municipal elections in odd-numbered years, or “off-cycle.” This year is one of those years and this fall’s preliminary election promises to have a crowded mayoral field, with at least six major candidates vying to be city executive.
The survey of 552 registered Boston voters, commissioned by Policy for Progress, a local policy lab, in partnership with The MassINC Polling Group, found that only 31 percent supported keeping the city’s elections in odd-numbered years. The poll was conducted in English and Spanish by cell phone and landline April 8-11, and has a margin of error of 4.9 percent.
It comes ahead of what could be a historic election in the city. Boston voters have never elected a mayor who is not a white man. This year’s diverse field — all the major candidates thus far identify as Black, Latino, Asian, or Arab American — could see that trend come to an end.
Sophia Acker, a policy fellow at Policy For Progress and student at Tufts University, is among those who say off-cycle elections empower special interests and reduce the voting power of historically underserved groups. The dynamic amplifies racial disparities of the electorate who turn out for the ballot box, she said. In such elections, the electorate is typically older, whiter, and wealthier when compared to national elections. She pointed to the last City Council election in Boston, which saw a 17 percent turnout, which she called “strikingly low.”
By contrast, the Boston voter turnout for last year’s presidential general election was 68 percent. For that election, Massachusetts saw record turnout, with 76 percent of registered voters participating and nearly two-thirds of their ballots sent by mail or cast early, as the coronavirus pandemic forced many to reconsider voting habits.
Holding elections off-cycle does serve to help entrenched Democratic incumbents and allows special interests and white voters to exert outside influence at the polls, Acker said. She called the new poll results striking.
“It’s difficult to get survey respondents to go against he status quo,” she said.
Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group, concurred.
“To see support that much higher relative to the opposition was somewhat surprising,” he said.
Liam Kerr, an organizer with Policy for Progress, said “off-cycle elections is something that we just kind of live with.” Kerr’s group is hosting a panel discussion Tuesday focusing on the benefits of having municipal elections on the same day as elections with higher turnout.
“People are looking at different election reforms right now, it’s something that should at least be on the table and up for discussion,” he said of moving the city’s election cycle.
The timing of elections in the city became an issue earlier this year, when it looked like the departure of then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh could trigger a pair of special elections, in addition to the two municipal contests already scheduled for the fall. The city charter mandated a special election be held if Walsh left office before March 5. But there were public safety, cost, and low-turnout concerns over hosting two additional local contests in the city this year. A home rule petition was passed and signed by Governor Charlie Baker, though the change became moot when Walsh stayed on past March 5.
City officials are also considering moving the preliminary municipal election up a week, from Sept. 21 to Sept. 14. That move has the backing of the state’s top election official, Secretary of State William Galvin, who said it would give the city more time to distribute and receive early votes for the general.
The preliminary election would trim the field down to two. The general, which is scheduled for Nov. 2, will decide who is the next mayor of Boston.
And just this week, one Boston city councilor is introducing two home rule petitions that would create provisions for no-excuse vote-by-mail and allow for same-day voter registration in the city’s municipal elections. Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the measures would reduce barriers to voter participation and help protect residents during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nationally voting rights and ballot access are under attack,” Arroyo said in a statement. “Boston has an opportunity to lead with proven policies and practices that both serve to further the health of the public and our democracy. That is why we must advocate for and implement these election reforms.”
The proposals to expand voting options have the support of the NAACP Boston Branch. Tanisha M. Sullivan, the branch’s president, said the petitions, which would need local and State House approvals to go into effect, would help “ensure that the rights and access of Boston voters are protected and advanced.”
“The time to act is now,” she said. “There is much work that can be done right here in Massachusetts to ensure that we have fair, safe, and accessible elections. While the rest of the nation debates this issue, we can get it done.”