Election apathy hinges on pride

Low turnouts predicted in Worcester, elsewhere

Does anybody care that elections for mayor, school committee, and city council in Worcester are next week? Alas, most people probably don’t, and it’s very unclear what can be done about this.

A small minority of Worcester’s population elects its officials. In recent years, statistics on voter turnout in local elections in Worcester have been uniformly unimpressive. Since 2001, never have more than 30 percent of registered voters in the city cast votes, and at times as few as 17 percent have. The leading vote getter among city council candidates in 2009 received around 12,000 votes, which is less than 9 percent of Worcester’s total voting-age population.

Interest in city politics in Worcester is sporadic and the issues which attract the most attention tend to be symbolic ones over which city government has no substantive responsibility. In May 2010, crowds turned out at city hall when the city council took up a resolution to boycott Arizona businesses over that state’s restrictive immigration law. But almost no one shows up for budget hearings.

Of course, citizens in many municipalities combine popular apathy towards the legitimate functions of local government with a fondness for infusing local affairs with properly national and even global concerns. It’s just as common in wealthy suburbs as in poor, former mill towns like Worcester. Brookline voted to impeach President Bush. Concord attempted to ban all bottled water sales, under the assumption that, just as in April 1775, its noble example would inspire other communities to follow suit. The Cambridge City Council has passed numerous resolutions registering their disapproval of the Iraq war. In Brookline, Concord, and Cambridge alike, it’s generally a good year when one-third of registered voters turn out to vote in local elections.

Local politics is, in some sense, boring by design. Although many Massachusetts cities and towns existed long before the state and national governments, constitutionally speaking, state government created all local governments for reasons of administrative convenience. Local governments have no rights or responsibilities other than those granted to them by state government.

In every community, voter turnout rates are much higher in state and national elections. Up to 60 percent of registered voters in Worcester have turned out for presidential elections in the past decade. National defense and Social Security and Medicare reform are undoubtedly critical issues, but should people be more engaged about them than about public education and public safety, the two most important functions of local government? They’re certainly not any easier to understand. Moreover, civic engagement, properly understood, is not just self-expression, but rather the legitimate exercise of self-government. The possibilities of exercising self-government are much more abundant on the local than state and national levels, and not only because your vote counts for much more. Private citizens can exert a direct political influence either through running for elected office or by serving on any number of volunteer boards and commissions.

Most of city government’s institutions and processes we owe to the Progressive movement (township government is a different question). The Progressives restructured city government in an effort to weaken dominance of urban party machines like New York’s Tammany Hall. In the 21st century, city government is much more efficient, transparent, professional, accountable, and free of “boodle” (a term for graft and patronage) than in the era of boss rule, due in large part to the work of the Progressives.

But the Progressive record on civic engagement is much more mixed. The Progressives envisioned an enlightened citizenry engaged in self-government out of purely disinterested motives. The bosses viewed this as impractical, arguing that, in a world without graft and patronage, most people would lose interest in local politics altogether. This prediction seems to have been borne out. At present, the most engaged elements of the citizenry at the local level are the public employee unions, whose stake in local policy questions is clearly self-interested.

Meet the Author
To conclude, one last hypothesis about the problem of civic engagement which seems to me to apply to Worcester and, I suspect, other Gateway cities as well. Civic pride is a necessary condition for civic engagement. If you love a community, then you are likely to have strong views about proposals to change it, which may prompt you to act. Pride is somewhere between pure disinterestedness and self-interestedness. Lack of civic engagement may indicate simply a lack of civic pride. If we want to increase civic engagement in Worcester, we need to take seriously the possibility that until people feel more pride in their city, many will remain unmotivated to turn out on election day.

Stephen D. Eide is the senior research associate at the Worcester Regional Research Bureau.