This year’s race for mayor of Boston will be historic: For the first time ever, the winner almost certainly won’t be a white male. Still, if history is any guide, this critical election will be decided by roughly a third of the city’s registered voters, and the Sept. 14 preliminary will draw an even smaller crowd. In 2013, with a dozen candidates vying for an open seat when Mayor Tom Menino retired, just 31 percent of registered voters turned out for the preliminary, and 38 percent for the November final.
And Boston isn’t unique among cities with low enthusiasm for local elections: For all its national coverage and groundbreaking experiment with ranked-choice voting, the recent primary contest for mayor of New York City generated a turnout of only 26 percent.
The local electorate is not just small, it is skewed: older and whiter than the city at large. A study of mayoral contests in 50 cities funded by the Knight Foundation estimated that the median age of voters in Boston’s 2013 election was 51, whereas the median age of city residents overall is 32. A separate analysis of that election found white voter turnout was more than twice that of Black and Hispanic voters combined.
Such an imbalance in the voting population is often reflected in uneven spending and policy priorities at City Hall — not the equal representation that is the hope and promise of this election. “This is such a huge moment of social reflection and critique,” Karilyn Crockett, who was the city’s first chief of equity in former mayor Marty Walsh’s cabinet, said in an interview. “Can this [also] be an opportunity for political transformation and engagement?”
I have always been puzzled by the relative lack of interest in local elections, since the experience is so superior to voting for the big-ticket offices such as president. For one thing, you can actually meet the candidates. No need to rely on polls, propaganda, or political ads to take their measure; just mosey on down to a neighborhood farmers market and ask your questions directly. For another, precisely because turnout is low, each individual vote carries more weight. Anyone who feels that “my vote doesn’t count” hasn’t seen the thin margins that can determine the winner in local elections. In 2019, Julia Mejia was elected to the Boston City Council — after a recount — by a single vote.
Lastly, but importantly, the local level is where decisions are made on the issues that concern residents most. Housing costs, police reform, crime, education, property taxes, and all manner of quality-of-life issues from noise ordinances to parking permits are determined not in Washington but in city and town halls.
Longtime election analyst (and former mayoral candidate) Larry DiCara chalks up the declining interest in Boston’s mayoral races to the city’s changing demographics. Boston’s population overall is growing, but many newcomers are immigrants who can’t yet vote, or young professionals whose ties to the city are relatively weak. The percentage of school-age children in Boston has dropped in half since 1970; only Seattle and San Francisco have fewer families with children under 18. “If you don’t have kids in schools, you don’t spend a lot of time in the libraries, or care very much about the parks and playgrounds,” DiCara said. “You give $100 to the Sierra Club and you think you’ve done your job.”
But there are hints that this year could be different. With five candidates of color running for mayor (and many more seeking open City Council seats) traditionally lower-turnout neighborhoods should see a spike in participation. An analysis by DiCara and James Sutherland of the 2018 election found significant voter uptick in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. That race featured successful campaigns by three women of color — Ayanna Pressley for Congress, Rachael Rollins for district attorney, and Nika Elugardo for state representative — who often campaigned together.
Crockett, a native of Dorchester, also takes heart in those 2018 results. “It expands your sense of what’s possible,” she said. But she worries that lingering fear and fatigue from the COVID-19 pandemic could undermine turnout. Allowing absentee and early voting, as in 2020, would help, but prospects for that are murky at present.
A resounding turnout will give Boston’s first mayor of color a crucial mandate to govern. It will make 2021 a year the city achieved better representation not just among the candidates, but among the voters. I have voted in a Boston mayoral election 11 times since I first cast a ballot for Mel King in the preliminary of 1979. But I am hoping for a lot more company this fall.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.