Where the votes are in Boston

THE 2000 CENSUS CATEGORIZED BOSTON as a majority-minority city for the first time in its history, but this new classification has not been the primary cause of a changing political climate in the city over the last decade. Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters, while increasing in number, do not yet represent a significant percentage of Boston’s voting electorate because many of them are immigrants or under the age of 18. Instead, the real changes in the Boston electorate are occurring within the Caucasian community, where a vast collection of younger and educated white people, mostly born elsewhere, have the potential to determine the city’s political future. Potential is the key word. These young, white residents already exert great influence on the city’s voting in state­wide and federal elections, but so far they have shown little inclination to vote in municipal elections.

When voters went to the polls in the presidential election this past fall, the eight precincts which contributed the greatest turnout to the city’s overall vote total were all in the downtown area. For the most part, these were places where very few people lived 30 or 40 years ago but which are now becoming popular residential addresses. The precincts are located in Bay Village and the South End (Ward 5-precinct 1 and Ward 3-precinct 7), Chinatown and Downtown Crossing (Ward 3-precinct 8 and Ward 3-precinct 6), the North End Waterfront (3-1), the South Boston Waterfront (6-1), the Back Bay and South End (4-2), and the West End (3-5).

The past four elections have demonstrated that more and more people from these downtown neighborhoods are voting. Neighborhoods such as East Boston and parts of Dorchester (Fields Corner and Meetinghouse Hill) no longer carry the electoral clout that they did a generation ago because of their large immigrant populations which are not allowed to vote. This transformation in relative neighborhood electoral clout is a microcosm for what has been happening demographically across the city during the last generation.

People are living in areas of Boston that no one classified as residential merely a generation ago.  The Charlestown Navy Yard, North End Water­front, the South Boston Waterfront, Downtown, and “SoWa” (south of Washington in the South End) are but a few examples of a shift toward the northern neighborhoods of Boston. The consequences of this residential shift northward became evident last October as the Boston City Council struggled to redraw the lines of its nine districts in a way that accounted for the city’s changing population and demographics. Further­more, this trend only stands to accelerate as the Boston Re­develop­ment Authority continues to sign off on countless new residential buildings in these neighborhoods.

Remarkably, the precincts in Chinatown and along the South Boston waterfront were not even in the top 200 precincts (out of Boston’s 254 precincts) in terms of relative voter turnout just 40 years ago. Only a generation ago, China­town’s precinct was home to Boston’s adult entertainment district, popularly known as the Combat Zone. Long gone are the strip clubs, prostitutes, and adult theatres that once lined these downtown streets. The primary neighborhood “conflict” today revolves around the possible displacement of longtime-residents, primarily Chinese, by the construction of high-rise luxury condominiums.

Similarly, the South Boston waterfront precinct, which consists primarily of the area north of Broad­way Station, includes the city’s old industrial waterfront. Although the area still has its fair share of industrial space, it has been the beneficiary of redevelopment and revitalization coupled with a growth in population since the completion of the Central Artery/Tunnel and the Silver Line. Unlike the almost suburban nature of some of the city’s other neighborhoods, the South Boston waterfront could become a very densely populated neighborhood over the next generation.

Another major electoral shift in Boston is the repopulation of some of the city’s older neighborhoods. For instance, Jamaica Plain today has a greater percentage of Boston’s voters than it did 40 years ago, primarily because houses which were empty are now full, and new housing units along the South­west Corridor have been constructed. As elsewhere in the city, it is not necessarily families that are repopulating Jamaica Plain. Less than one-fifth of JP’s residents are under the age of 18. Far fewer children means more adults—and, in turn, more voters—are living in the neighborhood.

These changing housing and family patterns have become increasingly important in a political sense during the last 40 years. In 1970, almost 38 percent of Boston’s residents were under the age of 18. Today, children under 18 account for just 17 percent of our city’s population. Furthermore, the average household size has decreased by almost 25 percent in the last 50 years. Given this shift, it is understandable that Boston’s families are steadily growing smaller and that neighborhoods such as West Roxbury, South Boston, and the coastal parts of Dor­chester, which were considered the electoral breadbasket for generations, have fewer people living there than was the case a generation ago.

Despite all these changes, there continues to be a disproportionate number of voters in city elections who reside in elderly housing developments. Precincts that house these elderly developments have exceptionally higher turnouts than their adjacent precincts. For instance, turnouts in Ward 7-precinct 3 (Foley Apartments at the foot of South Boston), Ward 10-precinct 4 (Mission Park at the foot of Mission Hill), Ward 16-precinct 12 (Keystone Apart­ments on Dorchester’s border with Milton) and Ward 21-precinct 13 (Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly near Cleveland Circle in Brighton) provide a disproportionate amount of their individual ward’s overall turnout. Local candidates are understandably attracted to such captive and reliable voters, despite the fact that they are not representative of the city’s population at large.

The reason for the outsized influence of elderly developments in municipal elections is because so many of Boston’s voters tend to skip city races. Sadly, approximately one-third of Bostonians who voted in the most recent presidential election will not vote again for another four years if recent patterns continue. This selective voter participation in political contests is part of a pattern that has emerged within the past 30 years. The quadrennial high turnout is one of the reasons why Elizabeth Warren carried the City of Boston over Scott Brown by more than 100,000 votes—a significant portion of her margin of victory.

Less than half of those who voted in the 2012 presidential election are likely to vote in the upcoming mayoral election. Similarly, roughly 40,000 fewer Boston voters are likely to cast ballots for the November mayoral election than voted in the 2010 special election that saw Brown become the first Republican US senator from Massa­chu­setts since 1979, or either statewide gubernatorial election that Deval Patrick won.

Although it shouldn’t be considered an identity crisis, Boston finds itself at a turning point demographically, culturally, and politically. The larger electorate is younger, more liberal, more educated, and more often than not comprised of those who have moved to the city within the past 10 years.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

The significant gap in turnout between federal or statewide elections and local elections has a variety of political consequences. If any candidate for mayor or City Council can excite some of those voters who only vote once every four years or some of the 40,000 to 50,000 who tend to vote in each even-numbered year, then that person could have a dramatic impact on the future of Boston’s political landscape.

Lawrence S. DiCara is an attorney with Nixon Peabody in Boston and a former Boston City Council president. James Sutherland is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University.