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opinion | Malia Lazu

Low voter turnout? Boston can do better

REUTERS/file 2012

Municipal elections are notorious for low voter participation, and Boston City Council races are no exception. Even in 2011, when all of the council races were contested, the city only eked out an 18.4 percent turnout. Next Tuesday, most expect those numbers to be even worse.

This isn’t merely an embarrassment. Participation in democracy matters, even for the most local of races. It legitimizes the power of elected officials to act on our behalf. And in a city that is growing and transforming, voter participation is especially important. How else will politicians feel the need to represent a broad definition of “Boston”?

There’s no need to wring our hands and say the people will never change. Here are three things Boston can do to increase voter turnout.

1. Stop blaming the voter

American democracy is the only multimillion dollar industry that blames its consumer for not buying its product. And talking about “apathy” is a cop-out. It’s more about resignation. Potential voters would rather volunteer for an issue they’re passionate about than vote; they see activism as a better use of their time. Government and civic leaders should engage nonvoters and ask them why they can’t seem to make it to the polls.

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2. Build a tradition of voting

Voter education is the candidates’ responsibility, but it’s also the city’s obligation. There are many ways to encourage participation. Promote elections with ubiquitous ads on public transportation and in city spaces. Provide small grants for communities to organize voter turnout parties and education forums. Allow for same-day voter registration. Use the bully pulpit to invite people to participate.

3. Encourage more people to run

It’s hard to believe your vote matters when there are so few contested races. Boston should explore policy changes that would lead to more candidates in every election. Comprehensive campaign finance reform and instant runoff voting — in which voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference — are proven ways to bring more people into the system. Our democracy is worth the effort.


Malia Lazu is executive director of the Future Boston Alliance and a founder of MassVOTE.