Voters shrug at Boston’s ‘historic’ mayor’s race
Turnout lower than 8 years ago, despite population growth
THE BOSTON MAYOR’S race drew national coverage, with stories appearing everywhere from the New York Times and Washington Post to the PBS NewsHour. The outsized attention was squarely focused on the historic field of candidates: five major contenders, all of whom were people of color and four of whom were women, in a city with a sordid past on race issues that has only elected white men as mayor.
But Boston voters themselves didn’t seem too worked up about making history.
Just 108,000 voters cast ballots in the preliminary election that narrowed the field to two finalists — Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George. That’s about 5,000 fewer than the number who voted in the last open race for mayor eight years ago.
What’s more, the city has added more than 40,000 voters since then, with more than 430,000 voters now registered in Boston.
In 1983, the city saw one of its most spirited races for an open mayor’s seat with the retirement of Kevin White. More than 166,000 votes were cast in the six-way preliminary election that narrowed the field to Ray Flynn and Mel King, who became the first Black candidate to make a mayoral final in Boston history. Not only were almost 60,000 more ballots cast in that election than in this week’s mayoral preliminary, the city was home to 113,000 fewer people than it is today.
Boston’s 1980 population stood at 563,000, but has surged to 675,000, according to the 2020 Census.
“It’s 100,000 more people and the vote is less,” said Larry DiCara, a former city councilor who was one of the six candidates in the 1983 mayoral contest. “These are people who are not necessarily invested in the city,” he said of the flood of newcomers to Boston. “They don’t know who their city councilor is, probably couldn’t find their way to City Hall. They’re not necessarily bad people — it’s just very different.”
The city’s population growth has included two big demographic blocs that don’t show up at the polls: immigrants, including many who are not US citizens and therefore not eligible to vote, and young adults who have moved here for job opportunities but who don’t have a sense of attachment to the city or interest in local politics.
Foreign-born residents accounted for 16 percent of Boston’s population in 1980. That share has almost doubled to 28 percent today. Only about half of foreign-born residents are US citizens and therefore able to vote, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
Other factors aside, there was a clear lack of enthusiasm for this year’s race even among those eligible to cast a ballot.
Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, offered what she called a “counterintuitive” hypothesis — that some voters sat out Tuesday’s election because they liked several candidates and had a hard time choosing one. She said the idea draws on the work of Paul Lazarsfeld, a Columbia University researcher who led well-known studies in the 1940s showing that voters feeling pulled in several directions sometimes react by not voting at all.
“I don’t necessarily take a bad news story away from lower turnout, and this is the first time I’ve said that in my career,” O’Brien said.
Segun Idowu, president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, voiced fears of a low turnout on a pre-election episode of The Codcast. He offered a version of the explanation suggested by O’Brien, speculating that the field of candidates was almost an embarrassment of riches when it came to racial diversity, a fact that may have made voters of color more complacent about the election.
Had there been only one or two candidates of color, Idowu said, “I wonder if that might have changed things in terms of folks really paying attention and being involved and saying, ‘yeah, we’ve got to go out and make sure my preferred candidate gets elected.’”
Of course, the other possibility is just that overall voter enthusiasm for city elections is low.
Tuesday’s low turnout — about 25 percent of registered voters — is just the latest example of voters arguably having their turnout priorities backwards. More than 270,000 people showed up to vote in Boston in last November’s presidential election, when there was little doubt which candidate would win the state’s 11 Electoral College votes. In Tuesday’s mayoral preliminary, on the other hand, just 3,240 votes separated Essaibi George, who finished second and won a spot in the November final election, and fourth-place finisher Kim Janey.
The electorate that shows up for local races is a lagging indicator of changes in the city’s overall population make-up. That worked heavily in Essaibi George’s favor as she rolled up big margins in predominantly white neighborhoods dominated by longtime residents who vote reliably, whether it’s a local, state, or national election.Wu draws more heavily from those — like her — whose roots in the city don’t go back generations, or even decades, but who are staking a claim on local elections.
DiCara said the large pool of voters who sat out Tuesday’s election represent a “sleeping giant” that would break toward Wu in the final election. Whether she wakes them up may become the turnout question of the race.