Did primary turnout in Boston mark a turning point?

Dominance of traditionally high-voting neighborhoods may be over

RECENT ELECTION RETURNS have generated much discussion as to a change in voting patterns in Massachusetts and elsewhere across the country. The research we have done over a period of years has concluded that there is a different Boston electorate – and a much larger one – during quadrennial November presidential elections. The turnout is also much more level across the city in presidential contests.

The recent primary election in Boston seemed to deviate from historical patterns for state primaries by mirroring the more-level turnout characteristics of presidential elections. Have we seen a change in voting patterns so that this “presidential” pattern may now be more obvious in state and local elections?

The September 2018 ballot included a series of Boston-based elections that saw three women of color campaign intelligently and aggressively and win closely-watched Democratic primaries: Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley defeated US Rep. Mike Capuano in the 7th Congressional District; Nika Elugardo, a former senior policy advisor to state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, defeated state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means; and former MassDOT and Massport general counsel Rachael Rollins defeated four other candidates for Suffolk County district attorney, including a veteran prosecutor in the office who had been widely seen as the front-runner.

The old concept of coattails, such as were evidenced in 1964 and 1980 in the Johnson and Reagan presidential landslides, has not been as evident in recent years. (Many of those elected in 1980 have played important roles in the nation’s history. Alas, Chuck Grassley is with us to this day!) We believe there may be a different kind of coattails, perhaps “ideological coattails,” which are assisting left-leaning insurgent candidacies, especially of women and people of color, across the country and which appear to have contributed to some of the increased voter interest during Boston’s September primary.

The biggest coattails state election in recent memory was in 1990 when Bill Weld was elected governor and, for a host of reasons, brought along Republican candidates for office at all levels. It ushered in the only other time since the Sargent administration that a Republican governor had enough votes to sustain a veto in the state Senate. That, in turn, led in great part to a redistricting plan that resulted in the election of three new congressmen from Massachusetts in the 1990s – two of them Republicans. One of those elected to the state Senate in the 1990 election listed himself as being a bible salesman and listed as his qualification that he was a member of AAA. A woman who was elected a Republican county register of probate, when called the next day by a radio talk show host, asked what the job was and whether it paid. That’s the kind of a year it was.

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows that voter enthusiasm is at its highest level for a midterm election season in more than two decades. That level of enthusiasm was certainly present last month in Boston, with turnout higher than in recent primaries (25 percent of registered voters), despite a lack of voter interest in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

This surge was fueled in part by the Pressley, Elugardo, and Rollins campaigns. Each was able to successfully place itself within the larger political context by engaging in dialogue around salient national issues such as race, income inequality, criminal justice reform, and immigration. Every precinct in Boston saw increased turnout in 2018 compared to the 2014 primary that drew in 17 percent of Boston voters. People who were not regular voters and who were excited about a candidate(s) came out to vote. A number of precincts were substantially higher than the citywide turnout of 25 percent. In fact, the number of precincts with turnout over 35 percent jumped from two precincts in 2014 to 34 precincts in 2018.

Eight of the 10 precincts that saw the greatest turnout boost over 2014 were in either the 7th Congressional District, the 15th Suffolk District (primarily Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and Mission Hill), or both. Where they were on the ballot in these eight precincts, the three women of color candidates in the congressional, state representative, and district attorney races won each of these precincts, some by significant margins, with the exception of Ward 10, Precinct 7 (Mission Hill) in the state rep contest, won by Sánchez.

More Boston residents voted in the 2018 Democratic primary than the 2006 primary that was headlined by a gubernatorial race featuring eventual winner Deval Patrick, Christopher Gabrieli, and Thomas Reilly. Despite this, expanding voter rolls and population growth over the last decade meant that voter turnout in Boston, as a percentage of registered voters, dropped from the 34 percent that turned out in the 2006 primary to 25 percent last month. Part of the drop between 2006 and 2018 can be attributed to a lack of interest in the Democratic primary for governor this time around. Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the 7th Congressional District race, the Jamaica Plain-based state representative seat, and the race for district attorney helped drive voter interest. In fact, 21 Boston precincts had higher turnout in 2018 than 2006. Of those, 19 precincts were in the 7th Congressional District and seven were in the Jamaica Plain state rep district. Many of these precincts – which were primarily in parts of Allston-Brighton, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain – typically exhibit lower than average rates of turnout in primaries.

Two precincts in particular demonstrate the deviation from typical voting patterns. Ward 20, Precinct 4 (Roslindale) had the highest voter turnout in the city, supplanting Dorchester’s Ward 16, Precinct 12, which typically holds that distinction. This occurred despite the Roslindale precinct sitting outside the 7th Congressional District.

Conversely, a number of precincts in South Boston’s Ward 6 saw steep declines in voter turnout compared to the 2006 primary, notwithstanding a competitive primary for an open seat in the House of Representatives to replace Nick Collins, who earlier this year won a special election for state Senate. Ward 6, Precinct 3, which experienced a slight uptick in voter turnout from 2014, saw the largest drop in turnout compared to 2006, going from 41 percent to 16 percent.

Changes in the voter turnout patterns meant that the “traditional” Boston electoral playbook – where candidates can rely on the heaviest turnout coming from South Boston, the eastern and southern parts of Dorchester, parts of Hyde Park, and West Roxbury – did not work. Victorious campaigns built their vote totals with a surge of votes from communities of color in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan; precincts with a large number of liberal whites in Roslindale and Jamaica Plain; and even parts of Allston-Brighton with a heavy number of young voters.

Not unlike patterns seen across the country, the “ideological coattails” emanating from the national level seem to have awoken political forces in Boston that crave new leadership. These new forces, along with changing demographics and savvy campaigning, ushered in a new electoral map in last month’s primary. If these electoral patterns prove stable, politics will be very different in Boston and in Massachusetts going forward.

James Sutherland holds a PhD in political science from Northeastern University and is government relations coordinator at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Lawrence S. DiCara is a Boston attorney and author who served for 10 years as a member of the Boston City Council.



Meet the Author

Meet the Author