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Low voter turnout sends a message about civic culture

The candidates to become the next mayor of Boston should prove their merit by engaging an unenthusiastic electorate in the final campaign stretch.

Voters at Yawkey Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury get hand sanitizer before voting in the Boston mayoral primary on Tuesday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The abysmal turnout in Tuesday’s preliminary mayoral election was a signal that, to many Boston residents, picking the next mayor and members of the city council just doesn’t seem all that important. A bit over 100,000 voters turned out — which is actually fewer than the number that voted in the last open preliminary election in 2013, and just over a third of the number who voted last year in the presidential election. The paltry turnout came despite Boston’s growing population, the addition of more early and mail-in voting options, and a historic field of candidates that — though they motivated core constituencies — apparently failed to galvanize widespread enthusiasm.

Over the next two months, the finalists who emerged from Tuesday, City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, need to do more than joust against each other for the support of that core electorate of reliable voters. They need to make the case to the rest of the city’s residents that it actually matters who Boston picks as its 55th mayor, and to attract more voters to their respective visions for the city. Engaging and inspiring those nonvoters to show up wouldn’t just be good politics for the candidates, but would also help strengthen a civic culture that it’s now clear needs improvement.


Wu, who finished in first, and Essaibi George, who took the second spot, both made it into the final by tapping into one of the city’s traditional high-voting constituencies. Highly educated progressives and city workers rarely need much urging to show up in preliminary elections — and by all indications, on Tuesday they did.

But mayors can touch the lives of the larger universe of ordinary residents in ways that are not always immediately apparent. In a strong-mayor system like Boston’s, the quality of city services, from snow removal to filling the proverbial potholes, depends on mayors hiring competent managers. The public schools fall under the mayor’s control, via the appointed school committee. Mayors can also play a major role in determining the affordability and availability of housing. Mayors negotiate labor contracts with municipal workers, including the police. They can shape the city’s business climate — attracting, or scaring away, potential employers. The mayor also often serves as the city’s face to the world, particularly in moments of crisis. Even in areas where they lack any official role, mayors also have soft power: They can put pressure on the Legislature, and they have the ability to convene stakeholders in the city around their priorities.


In Wu and Essaibi George, voters picked two finalists who would clearly emphasize different aspects of the job and who seem to have different views on how much reform Boston needs. Wu has a more activist bent, and would expand the ambitions of the mayor’s office to priorities like improving the T, over which the mayor has no formal control, while also emphasizing racial equity, city planning, and climate resilience. Essaibi George has a more restrained — or, her supporters might say, focused — vision of the mayor’s job, with an emphasis on education, and what appears a desire to continue the Walsh years. Both of those approaches have their appeal to different factions of voters; over the fall campaign, it will be up to the candidates to make the case for those disparate approaches beyond their respective political bases.


Of course, increasing turnout is not solely the responsibility of individual candidates. State and local authorities have to continue seeking ways to make voting in municipal elections easier — for instance, through same-day registration or moving elections to presidential years. But the most effective way to turn out voters is still to give them a reason to vote, and that’s where the candidates come in. Historically, the electorate that shows up in November is somewhat larger than the one that votes in the preliminary election — and it sometimes renders a different verdict. In 2013, 113,319 voted in the preliminary; two months later, 142,007 voted in the final, and Marty Walsh won it by a larger margin. This year, the two remaining candidates need to make it a priority to reach the voters who did not turn out on Tuesday — because it’s the right thing for the city, and because their own political fortunes may depend on it.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the results of the September, 2013, mayoral preliminary election; Marty Walsh was the highest vote-getter.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.