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Editorial

A civic embarrassment

Turnout was low at Milton's senior center, where both Wards 2 and 4 voted.
Turnout was low at Milton's senior center, where both Wards 2 and 4 voted.(Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

Thursday was a civic embarrassment. In the primaries that effectively decided many local offices, turnout all across Boston barely exceeded 9 percent. In the hotly contested state representative Democratic primary in Roxbury and the Fenway, just 2,061 voters cast ballots.

Yes, it’s each individual voter’s choice whether to show up. But when turnout numbers dip this low, policy makers also have to ask whether the voting process itself needs improvement. It does.

One place to start would be to upgrade the state’s nascent early-voting system. Because Thursday’s vote was a primary, the election wasn’t covered by the new early-voting law, which allows voters to cast ballots early for, any reason, in a 10-day window preceding general elections.

The early-voting law does impose a cost on municipalities — about $670,000, in Boston’s case. But leaving out primaries is a serious deficiency. With so few Republicans on ballots across Massachusetts, Democratic primaries often serve as de facto elections. In the Roxbury seat, for instance, there are no Republicans running in the November general election. The Legislature should include party primaries in early voting, following states like North Carolina and Ohio that permit early voting for primaries.

Scheduling the primary on a Thursday — the first day of school in Boston, no less — also may have hurt. Tuesday primaries and elections are inconvenient too, but at least have tradition on their side. Next time, why not try holding the primary over a weekend, when voting would impose less of a burden on working people?

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The very best solution to low turnout, though, is outside the direct control of either state or city officials. The most foolproof way to increase turnout is for the ballot to feature contested races for important offices.

But five of six state Senate incumbents in Boston ran unopposed. Twelve state representatives drew no opponent. For some Boston Democrats, the only contested races were for sheriff and register of deeds. (Republicans in Boston — there were 1,275 of them voting on Thursday — had no contested races at all.)

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The candidates who ran against incumbents and lost — Roy Owens, Melinda Stewart, Charles Clemons, Jovan J. Lacet, Carlotta M. Williams, Virak Uy, Anthony J. Solimine, and Alexander Rhalimi — ranged from serious contenders to gadflies. But they all deserve a round of applause, because they did their part to keep democracy working. A change in political culture that encourages more citizens to follow their lead and run against incumbents is the best long-term hope for improving Thursday’s abysmal turnout numbers.