Yvonne Abraham

Boston’s voting turnout is a turnoff

Wow, people in Boston are really happy.

Or apathetic. Or disillusioned. Or forgetful.

Turnout in Tuesday’s municipal preliminary was a dismal 14 percent. Fourteen percent. I’ve been to Tupperware parties more happening than that.


Just 56,000 people voted — and you can bet city hall employs about 16,000 of them.

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What gives? Are people here really that content? Sure, for some Bostonians, all is hunky-dory: They live in homes they can afford, they have decent jobs, their kids are getting good educations, they feel safe.

But there are plenty of others, struggling mightily, unable to find their place in Mayor Marty Walsh’s Boston. Where were they on Tuesday?

Maybe they figured that, even though Boston isn’t perfect, Walsh is still the best guy to lead it. Even some of challenger Tito Jackson’s constituents appear to have felt that way; Walsh performed well in neighborhoods represented by the city councilor from Grove Hall. Or perhaps they agree with Jackson’s criticisms of Walsh for his coziness with developers, his proximity to a federal corruption investigation, his failure to make schools work for all but decided that no mayor, no matter what he promised, could improve their lives.

Or maybe they didn’t realize there was an election at all. Lord knows, there is plenty to distract voters, as the president lobs unseemly salvos via Twitter and his Cabinet goes about undoing the government they work for.


The threat of nuclear annihilation has a way of making municipal matters seem less pressing. I’ll cop to being part of the problem here, neglecting the mayoral contest in this space because Lord, We’re All Going to Diiiiiiieeeee.

And Bostonians could be forgiven for thinking their votes wouldn’t matter. City elections here are grotesquely lopsided affairs. The mayor has used the massive benefits of incumbency to box Jackson out, outraising the councilor by many orders of magnitude. Even after just one term, many folks feel they owe Walsh support, campaign contributions, votes. Being mayor is like being on a permanent, taxpayer-funded campaign, packed with cookouts, ribbon-cuttings, and glad-handing sessions all over the city. It’s hard to compete with that unless you have crazy amounts of money.

Before Tuesday, Walsh managed to avoid the debates that would have given Jackson’s campaign oxygen. Now his people say he’s committed to two debates with Jackson before Nov. 7.

That’s excellent news. Making him defend his record is good for the mayor, and for the city. Also good (though less likely): a scare at the ballot box, which is possible only if a non-trivial chunk of the city makes it to the polls.

How to make that happen? Well, we could hold elections on Saturdays, when more folks are free. And we could have mandatory voting, with some penalty for those who don’t show up. Some see making voting compulsory as antithetical to democracy and free expression. But it’s no more undemocratic than having everyone’s lives controlled by the wishes of a tiny sliver of the electorate.


Boston isn’t the only city with this problem. In about half of the most populous cities in the United States, mayoral elections are decided by fewer than 20 percent of voters, according to a Portland State University study. And those who do vote skew older and more affluent.

No prizes for guessing whose needs even a conscientious mayor will see as most pressing.

Will any mayor represent a whole city if only 14 percent of it is paying attention?

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham