Boston is gearing up for one of the most consequential mayoral elections in its history.
The new mayor will have to address the enormous inequalities in children’s education, tackle a housing affordability crisis that is hollowing out the city’s middle class, and guide the city through pandemic-inspired shifts in the way we work.
But if recent history is any guide, a small and unrepresentative sample of Boston voters will choose the city’s next leader.
In 2017, just 28 percent of Boston voters turned out for the November election. And in 2013, the first open-seat mayoral race in a generation, only 38 percent cast ballots. The numbers for the city council-only elections that fall in-between mayoral races were even more abysmal. And the voters who did turn out to vote were a lot whiter than the city’s overall electorate.
That means many of the voters with the biggest stake in local governance had no voice in choosing their leaders.
And that’s no way to run a democracy.
Of course, it’s incumbent on candidates to inspire voters — and it’s incumbent on voters to do their civic duty. But pointing that out yet again won’t do much to change the reality on the ground. Here’s one measure that would: shifting municipal elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years.
It’s a simple change. But it would have dramatic effects, synching local elections with national contests that attract far more voters.
Last year, 68 percent of Boston voters turned out for the presidential election in November. Participation was higher across the board — in East Boston, Roxbury, and West Roxbury, alike. But an analysis by Policy for Progress, a group pushing for even-numbered-year elections in Boston and other Massachusetts municipalities, shows especially strong gains in communities of color.
Examining a widely used voter database, the organization found that Black voter participation jumped from 15 percent in the 2019 municipal election to 67 percent in the 2020 election. Latino participation increased six-fold in that same period. And just as important, the Latino share of the electorate jumped from 6.7 percent to 9.3 percent.
That’s still not representative of the city’s overall population. But it’s a substantial improvement on a badly skewed system.
Boston is among the 80 percent of American cities that hold “off-cycle” municipal elections, a practice that dates back to the Progressive Era, when reformers separated elections to insulate local races from national politics.
It was a noble sentiment. But in practice, odd-year elections have diluted the power of voters of color and given outsized power to city unions and other special interests who can more easily influence small-universe electorates.
They have also provided a leg up to incumbents, who fare better when city workers and other loyalists make up a larger share of the electorate.
All over the country, odd-year elections have favored entrenched power.
Defenders of the status quo might note that Boston has made strides diversifying city leadership under the current system. About half of the City Council are people of color. And Boston seems poised to elect a person of color mayor for the first time this fall, with all the major declared candidates identifying as Black, Latino, Asian, or Arab American.
But there is no guarantee that the city’s top leaders will continue to reflect the city’s diversity when the electorate does not. And empowering voters of color is not just a mechanism for electing Black and Latino leaders, anyway.
In a democracy, we should want a more representative electorate. And we should want all of our leaders, whatever their backgrounds, to answer to the city in full.
A Policy for Progress poll of Boston voters, conducted in partnership with the MassINC Polling Group, found that 62 percent favor aligning municipal elections with national elections and only 31 percent want to keep the current system.
This is a popular idea. And little wonder. Extra elections are expensive. And a larger, more representative electorate is good for democracy — and good for the city.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.