Tuesday’s election will mark a new era in Boston politics, as voters for the first time elect a woman of color as mayor of the city. But it remains to be seen whether that milestone will drive high voter turnout in a city where civic participation proved low in September — and where many predict low turnout among communities of color in particular.
With mere hours to go before Election Day, rival City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George spent the rainy weekend criss-crossing the city, hitting Halloween-themed get-out-the-vote parties, convening rallies, and kicking off canvass efforts. Both candidates said they hope for high voter turnout when the city goes to the polls on Tuesday.
“We are now into the phase where the goal is to make sure people are so tired of hearing that they need to go out to vote that they go as quickly as possible,” Wu told a Globe reporter Sunday, saying the goal now is to remind voters not one “but two times, three times” about Election Day.
Essaibi George said she fears the wide gap in the polls may keep some people from voting, but she is hoping for higher turnout than the city saw in September.
“We saw, unfortunately, such low turnout in September. I’m hoping that we really will change the tide for Tuesday’s election,” Essaibi George said in an interview. “People are burdened with a lot right now.”
Tens of thousands have already made their selections: 6,499 voted early, according to city tallies, and 32,937 have submitted mail-in ballots.
Boston’s high-water mark for civic engagement came in 1983, when Mel King became the first Black candidate to make it onto a general election ballot for mayor, a contest that drew nearly 200,000 to the polls. Few expect this year to crest that total, especially as front-runner Wu holds such a significant lead in the polls that voters may conclude her victory is a foregone conclusion.
“I don’t know if it’s COVID . . . but nobody seems really that engaged,” said City Councilor Frank Baker, who faces a challenger on Tuesday for his Dorchester seat. “They told us how spectacular all these women running were, how game-changing this election’s going to be — it doesn’t really feel like people are on fire about it.”
Just 108,000 people voted in September’s preliminary election, a quarter of the city’s registered voters. Fewer votes were cast in September 2021 than in the preliminary round in 2013, the last time Boston had an open mayor’s race.
On the trail this weekend, both candidates were attempting to drive as many voters to the polls as possible.
Both appeared at the North End Halloween Parade Sunday afternoon, making their last-minute pitch to voters against a backdrop of orange and black balloons as speakers blared the Bee Gees. Volunteers for Essaibi George’s campaign handed out Air Heads and Pirate’s Booty stamped with stickers in her signature hot pink. Spider-men, dinosaurs, and miniature members of the Boston Bruins enjoyed a row of bounce houses while adults shared caramel apples.
Essaibi George’s Halloween costume this year is “candidate for mayor,” she said, tapping the brim of her hot-pink campaign hat.
On Sunday night, Essaibi George launched into a 24-hour last-minute campaign blitz, with her planned stops including a midnight conversation with MBTA workers; a 2:30 a.m. visit to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the epicenter of the city’s opioid and homelessness crisis; and a 5 a.m. visit to the Freeport School Bus Yard in Dorchester.
“There’s lots going on at every hour of the day in our city,” Essaibi George said . “One part of our city may go to sleep at a certain hour while another part of our city is just getting started with their day. . . . As mayor I want to be there for all of them.”
Wu on Sunday was preparing to go trick or treating with her two young children, dressed as Transformers in costumes that her sister made. But first she joined dozens of supporters at a canvassing rally in the Back Bay, asking them for their continued support straight through Election Day while calling them to lead “with love, with inclusion, with joy,” in a reference to a recent negative attack ad launched against her by a superPAC.
“There’s so much energy for change out in our communities, and we just need to make sure that gets to the polls,” Wu said.
One particular focus for both candidates: recruiting support, and persuading voters to come out, in Black communities.
After the disappointing citywide turnout in the preliminary election, and the elimination of three Black candidates, voter engagement groups joined forces to get out the vote in the Black community. The groups — including MassVOTE, the Boston branch of the NAACP, the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, among others — led a “Souls to the Polls” march earlier this month to get voters to cast early ballots after church, adopting a strategy more common in the South.
The group, which is not pushing either candidate, has also been phone banking every Tuesday and door-knocking on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
“We’re connecting coalitions so we can get more bang for our buck,” said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE. “Instead of one door being hit three times, we want to make sure that every door is hit.”
Bishop William Dickerson, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race, said at a campaign event earlier this month that the candidates must work hard to ensure Black voters that their concerns will be addressed.
“I think that’s a challenge for both candidates — overcoming the voter apathy, and certain communities have been apathetic because they have felt that they have not received their fair share of the Boston renaissance, all the economic development,” Dickerson said.
Cameron Charbonnier, Essaibi George’s campaign manager, said the campaign has embarked on a massive operation to knock on doors, with the help of many foot soldiers from the numerous labor unions that have endorsed her. By the middle of last week, he said, the campaign had reached the doors of all likely voters in Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Dorchester — twice.
Citywide, the Essaibi George campaign has knocked on about 160,000 doors since the preliminary election and made over 200,000 phone calls, he said.
“We feel good about the response we’re getting out there on the doors, in every community, but especially in the Black community,” Charbonnier said.
Wu’s communications director, Sarah Anders, would not specify the number of voters reached since the preliminary election but pointed to the breadth of the campaign’s “distributed organizing” effort, which empowers volunteer leads to spearhead efforts in their local areas.
But Paul Simmons, a political consultant who has worked on numerous races in Boston and has been watching the mayor’s race closely, said he doesn’t believe either campaign has built the infrastructure necessary to turn out Black voters. He anticipated that turnout would be lower in Boston’s Black communities than elsewhere in the city.
“Get-out-the-vote is not something you just pull out of a store room every two years and start cranking up,” he said. “It’s something, if done correctly, that is embedded in local civic culture every day of the year.”
Unions that have endorsed each candidate are spending the final stretch reaching their own members through phone calls, text blasts, and e-mails, as well as seeking to turn out other voters in the city.
For the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, which has endorsed Wu, the final stretch will be “really, really busy,” predicted Bert Durand, the union’s communications director. The carpenters have 5,000 members who either live in Boston or primarily work there, and hundreds spent the final few days reaching out to their own members, dialing phones, knocking on doors, filling out crowds at rallies, and holding prominent “visibilities” with colorful signs to remind passersby and nearby motorists about the upcoming election.
“We’ll have a lot of bodies out there,” Durand said.
Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.