Tuesday’s mayoral election in Boston could approach a record — and not a good one
Blame the media. Blame millennials. Blame the president.
Everyone is looking for a culprit to fault for what official forecasters predict could be a record low turnout in Tuesday’s mayoral and City Council elections.
Vital issues such as the future of Boston Public Schools, affordable housing, and the safety of the city’s streets are at stake, but that may not be enough to shake voters from their apathy.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top election official, predicted turnout could be as low as 90,000 in the city of Boston, or roughly 23 percent of the city’s eligible voters.
The last time Boston saw such dismal turnout was in 2001, when another popular incumbent, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, rolled over a cash-strapped city councilor, Peggy Davis-Mullen. Just 88,871 voters cast ballots in that race., about 36 percent of those eligible.
By comparison, nearly 200,000 voters — or 69 percent of all those eligible in the city — stampeded to the polls in the epic 1983 mayoral battle between Raymond L. Flynn and Mel King, the high point for turnout in recent Boston history.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Lawrence S. DiCara, a former city councilor and longtime Boston political observer who, like Galvin, predicted that turnout may not crest 100,000 on Tuesday. “What it means is a smaller and smaller number of people are determining our fate, and I don’t think it’s healthy for democracy.”
Political observers and campaign veterans point to long-term shifts in the city’s political culture, as Boston becomes younger and more business-friendly and international and less dependent on City Hall for patronage jobs than in past generations.
The city now has the highest concentration of millennials in the country.
Others cite more recent factors such as the daily drumbeat of controversies emanating from the Trump administration, which some say has consumed the attention of the media and the electorate.
But perhaps the most powerful factor pulling down turnout is what Galvin called the “lack of intensity” surrounding the races this year.
At the top of the ticket, Mayor Martin J. Walsh is sitting on a $4 million campaign account, a 66 percent job-approval rating, and a whopping 35 percentage point lead over Councilor Tito Jackson in the Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll, taken last month. Jackson has just $19,681 in his account, according to campaign finance records.
Walsh insisted he is campaigning hard, running ads on the radio and online, and dispatching supporters to knock on doors. He said he was disappointed by the low turnout in the primary, when 56,000 voters cast ballots, and will be disappointed again if turnout is sluggish on Tuesday.
“I think we will crack 100,000 — I hope we will, anyway, because it’s important to me to do that,” Walsh said. “The low turnout — I’ve never liked it.”
Jackson blasted Walsh for agreeing to only two debates instead of the four Jackson had demanded. “On our end, we’re doing the best we can do to make sure we turn up the noise and turn out the vote, but I do believe Mayor Walsh has essentially participated in voter suppression tactics by refusing to engage in democratic discourse and debates,” Jackson said.
“The frustration is not based on my campaign; the frustration is for the people of the city of Boston,” Jackson said. “They deserve better.”
Galvin pointed out that Walsh has not run television ads, as Menino often did in the closing days of his races, and has carefully avoided drawing down his bulging campaign account.
“Voters respond to campaigns and arguments and, as much as people hate political advertisements, there hasn’t been much spent,” Galvin said.
Representative Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who supports Walsh, said there was no reason for the mayor to dip into his campaign fortune.
“Why would he waste it?” Collins said.
The one bright spot on Tuesday might be the three highly competitive district council races. The fights to fill open seats in Districts 1, 2, and 7 have generated interest.
But the at-large council races, which could spark citywide excitement, are not as competitive. The four incumbents are facing four little-known challengers.
At-large Councilor Michael F. Flaherty said he is still campaigning but is frustrated that 65 percent of voters show up for presidential elections while “turnout is abysmal” in local elections.
“I’m not sure where that disconnect comes from,” he said. “Do we need more media attention to local, district, and at-large races? Possibly. Do folks who are moving into Boston need to get more civically engaged? Possibly. That’s the challenge.”