No surge of ‘new’ voters

Boston follows its traditional municipal voting pattern in the preliminary election

In the Spring issue of CommonWealth, several months before Boston’s September mayoral preliminary election, we argued that a candidate who was able to energize the incipient swath of new voters in the city’s northern and downtown neighborhoods could potentially emerge victorious. In that article, as well as a follow-up online analysis of the recent special election for US Senate, we wrote that this rapidly-developing pool of voters tends to turn out in high numbers for national elections, but not for municipal races.

Any of the 12 candidates who relied heavily on this voting bloc, however, were disappointed on election day, when turnout for the first open mayoral preliminary contest in 20 years followed patterns similar to those of other recent municipal elections.

There were no great surges in voting among the younger, more educated people not native to the city as occurred in the national elections of 2008 and 2012, meaning there continue to be two election turnout models in Boston – one national and one local. Despite millions of dollars of advertising and thousands of campaign workers getting out the vote, despite political activities electronic and new, as well as tried and true, only 112,000 people voted – almost exactly the same number as in the mayoral elections 20 years ago and four years ago. From this electorate tilted heavily toward traditional municipal-election voters, City Councilor John Connolly, a West Roxbury resident, and Dorchester state Rep. Marty Walsh emerged as the top finishers, and now move on to the final election in November.

In the mayoral preliminary election, unlike the recent Markey-Lynch Democratic primary for US Senate, there were no environmental groups calling younger left-of-center voters urging them to get out to vote. The real energy came from the campaigns themselves and from organized labor, which for the first time in recent memory was advancing the candidacy of one of its own members – Marty Walsh.

As with recent municipal elections, the southern part of the city showed higher levels of turnout than the rest of the Boston. In fact, out of the 50 precincts with the highest turnout, only four were outside of Boston’s southern precincts: Along the typically-high turnout coastal sections of the city, Ward 13 Precinct 10 (Savin Hill) had the 12th highest overall turnout, and not coincidentally, is home to both Walsh and fellow mayoral candidate Bill Walczak; South Boston’s Wards 6 and 7 as well as East Boston’s Ward 1 each had a precinct in the top 50 for turnout. Furthermore, not a single precinct from the northern part of Boston had a turnout rate higher than 50 percent, while just over 20 precincts from the southern part of the city did. The 30 precincts with the lowest turnout were all from northern parts of the city.

Lowest and Highest Turnout Precincts: Boston 2013 Preliminary Election

With turnout heaviest in traditionally voter-rich neighborhoods, the two candidates likely to benefit from a voter surge in neighborhoods that don’t typically have high turnout in municipal races – Mike Ross (a district city councilor representing the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and Fenway) and Charlotte Golar Richie (an African-American former state representative from Dorchester) – had no place to go to get to the anticipated 20,000 votes needed to be in the final. Wherever Richie turned, there was John Barros, the younger and more energetic former school committee member and executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. If she turned in another direction, there was Charles Yancey, a Dorchester/Mattapan city councilor for the past 30 years stubbornly refusing to let go. When she turned in yet another direction, there was City Councilor At-Large Felix Arroyo holding on to whatever he had, but similarly not able to expand beyond his base.

Meanwhile, Ross needed to rack up large totals in the downtown precincts that he represented for the past 13 years. Richie also hoped to pick up some votes here, but wherever either she or Ross turned, there were two candidates who made inroads in the downtown neighborhoods – Walczak (who also has lots of friends in Codman Square, which he revitalized in great part because of his will to do so) because of his principled stand against casinos, which provided him with a way to differentiate himself from the other candidates, and Connolly, who organized the downtown area building-by-building, focusing on younger families. Connolly’s citywide vote was a statement of generational muscle.

As we have argued previously, candidates will strategically target Boston’s most reliable voter block: the elderly. A case in point is Ward 16, Precinct 12 on the southern tip of Dorchester and home to the Keystone Apartments, a large senior citizen complex. In this year’s preliminary election, 70 percent of this precinct’s registered voters turned out – a whole nine percentage points higher than any other precinct in the city. This astronomical turnout rate is only dwarfed by this precinct’s 81 percent turnout rate in the 2012 presidential election. To compare, the turnout here for both the 2009 mayoral and 2011 city council elections was roughly 62 percent. The electoral might of Boston’s elderly population goes without question, especially when the city’s younger population abstains from voting in municipal elections.

For all of these reasons, the mayoral final looks similar to the mayoral finals of the past two or three generations: two Irish Catholic males in their 40s. Their differences are more cultural than ideological. This is Dorchester vs. West Roxbury; the State House vs. City Hall, not unlike the great Timilty vs. White elections which dominated the 1970s.

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As we head into November’s final election, a myriad of questions remain. With only two candidates in the final, will the increasingly younger and more liberal downtown voters tune in to the race and actually turn out to vote? Will Connolly and Walsh court the downtown voters with the same vigor as they pursue those residing in the city’s southern precincts? How much attention will be paid to the communities of color, a critical voting bloc that could play the role of kingmaker? Or without a candidate of their own, will large swaths of these communities chose to stay home on Election Day? Will coalitions emerge, which may include some of the candidates who did not advance to the final? Barros and Arroyo came out in support of Walsh earlier this week, while Richie is expected to endorse soon.

Plenty to ponder. Four weeks to go.

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 political science at Northeastern University.