Synchronizing municipal elections with national elections would increase turnout, experts say. New poll shows majority of Boston voters backing move
It precedes what could be a historic election in the city. Boston voters have never elected a mayor who is not a white man. This year’s diverse field – all of the top contenders so far identify as Black, Latino, Asian, or Arab-American – could see that trend come to an end.
Sophia Acker, policy officer at Policy For Progress and student at Tufts University, is among those who say out-of-cycle elections strengthen vested interests and reduce the vote. power of historically underserved groups. The dynamic amplifies the racial disparities of the electorate who come to the polls, she said. In such elections, the electorate is generally older, whiter and richer compared to national elections. She referred to the latest Boston city council election, which saw a 17% turnout, which she called “remarkably low.”
By contrast, Boston’s voter turnout in last year’s presidential general election was 68%. For this election, Massachusetts had a record turnout, with 76% of registered voters participating and nearly two-thirds of their ballots mailed or deposited early, as the coronavirus pandemic forced many to reconsider their voting habits.
Holding off-cycle elections serves to help entrenched Democratic incumbents and allows special interests and white voters to exert outside influence at the polls, Acker said. She called the new poll results striking.
“It’s hard to get survey respondents to go against the status quo,” she said.
Steve Koczela, chairman of the MassINC voting group, agrees.
“To see much higher support compared to the opposition was somewhat surprising,” he said.
Liam Kerr, an organizer for Policy for Progress, said that “off-cycle elections are something we sort of live with”. Kerr’s group is hosting a roundtable on Tuesday on the benefits of having municipal elections on the same day as elections with a higher turnout.
“People are currently considering different electoral reforms, this is something that should at least be on the table and be discussed,” he said of the shifting of the city’s electoral cycle.
The timing of elections in the city became a problem earlier this year, as it looked like the departure of then-mayor Martin J. Walsh could trigger a pair of special elections, in addition to the two contests. municipal council already planned for the fall. The city charter required a special election to be held if Walsh left office before March 5. But there were public safety, cost, and low turnout concerns about hosting two more local contests in the city this year. A house rules petition was passed and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, though the change became moot when Walsh stayed on March 5.
City officials also plan to postpone the preliminary municipal elections for a week, from September 21 to 14, which would give officials more time to distribute the postal ballots for the general competition in November. The move has the backing of the state’s top election official, Secretary of State William Galvin, who said it would give the city more time to distribute and receive quick votes for the general.
The preliminary election would reduce the field to two. The general, who is scheduled for Nov. 2, will decide who will be Boston’s next mayor.
And just this week, a Boston city councilor presents two house rules petitions that would create provisions for no-excuse mail-in vote and allow same-day voter registration in the city’s municipal election. Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the measures would reduce barriers to voter participation and help protect residents during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pair of measures is expected to be discussed at Wednesday’s city council meeting.
“National voting rights and access to the ballot box are under threat,” Arroyo said in a statement. “Boston has the opportunity to lead with proven policies and practices that serve both to improve the health of the public and our democracy. That is why we must advocate for these electoral reforms and implement them. “
The proposals to expand voting options have the support of the Boston Chapter of the NAACP. Tanisha M. Sullivan, the branch president, said the petitions, which would require local and State House approvals to go into effect, would help “ensure that the rights and access of Boston voters are protected and promoted ”.
“Now is the time to act,” she said. “There is a lot of work that can be done right here in Massachusetts to make sure we have fair, secure and accessible elections. As the rest of the country debates this issue, we can make it happen. “