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Voter self-suppression in Boston

It’s easier than ever to vote in Massachusetts. So why was turnout so anemic on Tuesday?

The view at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury, a polling place in Tuesday's preliminary municipal election. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staffSuzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Voting rights are under attack all over the country.

Just this year, 18 states have passed laws making it harder for people to vote, the measures pushed almost entirely by Republicans who have decided the only way they can cling to power is by suppressing the franchise of those who reject their policies.

Not here, though. It’s easier than ever to vote in Massachusetts.

But here, it seems, we self-suppress, at least when it comes to municipal elections. Despite the widespread availability of early voting and mail-in ballots, turnout in Tuesday’s preliminary contests was pretty much abysmal — particularly given the historic fields presented to voters, and the enormously high stakes in this moment of multiple crises. Decisions on who would compete to lead city governments, and therefore have the most direct impact on citizens’ lives, were left to slim minorities of voters.


In Lynn, a gateway city on the brink of massive change, just 8,227 of the city’s 55,595 registered voters cast ballots in the mayoral preliminary, sending attorney Jared Nicholson and City Councilor Darren Cyr into the November contest to lead a population of 100,000 — a turnout rate of just under 15 percent. In Somerville, turnout was about 25 percent; in Framingham, it was 17 percent; in Salem, 21.5 percent.

And what of Boston?

This was a rare, open race for mayor in the Commonwealth’s biggest city. The field was accomplished, experienced, exciting: After centuries of white, male mayors, all five major candidates competing Tuesday were barrier-breakers, four of them women, and all identifying as people of color. The buildup, and the potential to remake city government at all levels, was enormous.

Yet turnout was just 25 percent, with 108,000 of the city’s 432,000 registered voters casting ballots.

“Here we are ranting and raving watching Georgia and other places rolling back voting laws and we fight so hard to make sure that’s not happening here, and here people are not showing up,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, head of voter mobilization group MassVOTE. When poll workers told her she was only the 50th voter at her polling place at the Lee School in Dorchester at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Clyburn Crawford responded, she said, with a despairing cry: “No, no, no!”


In a Tuesday afternoon interview, she worried about whether groups like hers had targeted the right people, or brought the right messages to bear.

To be fair, a lot of voters have other things on their minds: We’re still contending with a deadly pandemic and its painful effects here. And, after the chaos of the last five years, people are understandably exhausted by politics.

More important, as third-place finisher Andrea Campbell put it Tuesday night in her concession speech, “It will take time to un-condition our people to trust that this government matters, and this government is here to serve them.”

Lower turnout was always going to favor candidates with experience running citywide, and sure enough it was the two at-large councilors, Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, who made the final cut. It was also going to favor Essaibi George, who left other candidates to split the progressive vote while she cornered the market on moderates, conservatives, and others more satisfied with the status quo. She aggressively courted public safety workers and the voters who support them, voters who skew whiter and older, and who show up in every election.


She was endorsed by former Boston police commissioner William Gross, who headed a super PAC funded in large part by New Balance CEO Jim Davis, a fervent Donald Trump supporter who threw $495,000 into backing Essaibi George, a fact first reported by the Dorchester Reporter. The candidate told the Reporter she was “not happy” about the Super PAC’s connection to Trump.

The general election will test the limits of Davis’s considerable influence. Now Boston faces the starkest possible choice, two candidates from opposite ends of what passes for the political spectrum in a very liberal city. Already, Essaibi George is positioning herself as the pragmatist, and casting Wu as a pie-in-the-sky idealist. Without naming her, she dismissed Wu’s calls for more radical solutions to climate change, housing affordability and transit woes as “academic exercises” and “lovely conversations.”

“Boldness is about getting it done,” Essaibi George said in her acceptance speech. Wu, who finished with 33.4 percent of the vote to her opponent’s 22.5 percent, is betting Boston residents want to go bigger than that.

We won’t know unless more of them show up.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.