Boston’s presidential election numbers

Huge Clinton margins - but lower turnout - in minority precincts mirror her problems nationally

NATIONWIDE, THE STORY over the past couple of weeks has been how Donald Trump outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Back here in Boston the converse was true: Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump. Clinton did slightly better in Boston than President Obama did in both 2008 and 2012. Even further, Clinton did not lose a single one of the 255 precincts in Boston, and she earned a majority in every precinct except one: Ward 16, Precinct 12 at the southern tip Dorchester. Conversely, Donald Trump did worse than Mitt Romney in 2012 and only reached 40 percent of the vote in two Boston precincts: the same Dorchester precinct where Clinton failed to win a majority and an adjacent precinct (Ward 16, Precinct 9). Trump did not earn a majority in a single precinct and his support was below 20 percent in 196 of the city’s 255 precincts.

Ever since the election, people across the country have been talking about how Trump’s win has changed politics as we know it. On the surface, though, it seems like not much has changed in Boston. After all, the degree to which Clinton won here was not unexpected. Yet the 2016 election was different from 2012 in several ways. We will outline Boston-specific observations from 2016 in three areas: voter turnout patterns, the impact of early voting, and blank ballots and support for third party and write-in candidates.

The number of presidential election ballots cast in Boston grew from 255,021 ballots in 2012 to 272,198 ballots in 2016. However, the city’s electorate also grew during that time. According to the Boston Elections Department, the city had its highest number of registered voters in more than 30 years. This resulted in a slightly lower registered voter turnout rate of 65.5 percent compared to 65.9 percent in 2012. While turnout citywide basically remained stagnant from 2012, there were some sizable changes in voter turnout across some of the 255 individual precincts in Boston. Geographically speaking, changes in voter turnout were not evenly spread throughout the city. Compared to 2012, voter turnout rates increased in downtown, Allston-Brighton, South Boston, Savin Hill, and parts of the Back Bay and Fenway. Conversely, the most severe declines in voter turnout were seen in the heart of Boston’s black community: Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.


The turnout decline in Boston’s black community cannot solely be attributed to the fact that Barack Obama was not on the ballot, although surely this might have played a role. Since the 2000 presidential election, Boston’s Ward 12 (Roxbury) has averaged a turnout rate of 65 percent, with a high of 68.5 percent in 2000. Meanwhile, Ward 14 (parts of Dorchester and Mattapan) has averaged a turnout rate of 63.8 percent and peaked in 2000 at 66.6 percent. In 2016, turnout in these two wards was 57.7 percent and 59.1 percent, respectively, their lowest rates this century. The Boston precincts that saw the greatest decline in voter turnout from 2012 were also the precincts that supported Hillary Clinton by the greatest margins. These patterns are not dissimilar to those seen in Detroit and Milwaukee, two cities with large African-American populations in states that swung to the Republican Party this cycle.

In Milwaukee, as well as many other cities, black voters were disproportionately impacted by new state laws that severely restricted access to the voting booth. Without polling data, analyzing demographic voting trends is an imperfect exercise. However, we think it is fair to conclude that large segments of the Boston’s black community expressed their discontent with the candidates on the ballot by not voting.


 Another change for voters in 2016 was the introduction of early voting. Across Massachusetts, voters had the opportunity to cast their ballots prior to Election Day. During the two weeks leading up to Election Day, the City of Boston opened numerous polling locations across the city. Residents who chose to utilize early voting could cast their ballot anywhere in the city whenever a polling location was open. Although early voting can make voting more convenient, it did not produce an increase in the city’s overall rate of voter turnout. Roughly 17.5 percent of all the ballots cast in the city were done so through early voting. However, the use of early voting varied substantially across the city. Downtown Boston was home to the five precincts with the highest proportion of their votes cast early (Ward 3, Precincts 1, 6, and 8; Ward 5, Precinct 1; and Ward 6, Precinct 1). These five precincts alone cast 11.3 percent of all early votes this election cycle. Ward 3, Precinct 6 – home to City Hall’s daily early voting location – had the highest rate in the city with just over 45 percent of its ballots cast via early voting.

Sutherland-2016-3Downtown residents may have taken advantage of early voting for a variety of reasons. For one, the early voting times and locations were concentrated downtown, making them much more accessible for the residents living there. In addition, the downtown precincts have the highest density of registered voters. Many of us recall that in 2012, many of these downtown voters waited over 3 hours to vote in person at their polling location. Fearing a similar situation in 2016, downtown voters may have opted for early voting this year in an effort to avoid those lines. Understandably, areas with fewer early voting opportunities were less likely to have high early voting turnout. West Roxbury and the coastal sections of Dorchester – two parts of the city with some of the highest rates of voter turnout each year – were much less likely to cast early ballots. Instead, residents there chose to vote how they have traditionally voted: on Election Day.

It is mighty apparent to both of us that some people are revolting against our political system not only by choosing not to be a member of a political party, but also by not voting – even in a presidential election.  Nationwide, other voters chose to express this dissatisfaction with our political system by voting for third party candidates, write-in candidates, or leaving their ballots blank. This story was also true for parts of Boston. Compared to 2012, the 2016 election saw an overall growth in votes for the Libertarian and Green party candidates, write-in candidates, and blank ballots. Support for third party candidates jumped 2.3 percentage points (from 1.7 percent to 4.0 percent of ballots) while write-ins and blanks increased 1.9 percentage points (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent of ballots). In fact, third party candidates in 2016 garnered their largest vote share since the 2000 election that was headlined by Ralph Nader’s bid.

The two third party candidates in 2016 – Jill Stein (Green) and Gary Johnson (Libertarian) – also ran in 2012, which facilitates the comparison between the two most recent elections. In 2012, both Stein and Johnson garnered 0.8 percent of the ballots cast (Johnson beat Stein by a mere 7 votes). Fast forward to 2016, and both candidates saw sizable increases in support: Johnson and Stein were supported on 2.6 percent and 1.4 percent of the ballots cast, respectively. This suggests that Boston voters in 2016 were less satisfied with the two candidates put forth by the major parties compared to 2012. The fact that Johnson (whose running mate, Bill Weld, was a well-known and liked hometown favorite) did so much better than Stein this time around also suggests a greater dissatisfaction with Trump than Clinton. Johnson snagged more third-party votes from traditional Republicans who did not want to cast votes for Trump or cross the ideological spectrum to Clinton.

Ballots with votes for third party candidates, write-ins, or that were left blank were not evenly dispersed throughout the city. The heart of Boston’s black community in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan was by far the least likely to veer off from support for one of the two major party candidates. Clinton ran up large vote totals – often over 90 percent of the votes – in these precincts as national Democrats typically do in majority-black precincts. Blank ballots, write-in votes, and ballots cast for either third party candidate were spread throughout the rest of the city, basically forming a ring around Boston’s black community. However, precincts with the highest concentrations of these ballots were found in Allston-Brighton, Charlestown, downtown, the North End, Back Bay, South Boston, coastal Dorchester, and parts of Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury. In Boston and in Massachusetts as a whole, these votes did not impact the ultimate outcome. However, it is possible that voters who were disaffected with the major party candidates or the two-party system in general might have impacted the winning candidate in other states.

Sutherland-2016-4Notwithstanding the introduction of early voting and vote-by-mail, the percentage of people voting in this country remains stagnant. Early voting appears to be a great convenience to those who might have voted anyway, while mail-in-voting (such as occurs in Oregon and elsewhere) eliminates the need to interact with other people. If this removal of barriers of time and place are not succeeding in expanding the electorate at least to the levels seen in the middle of the 20th Century, what steps can be taken to do so? Are there ways by which early voting can be improved so that even more will participate? Are there ways to remove other barriers to entry?  Most troubling, and notwithstanding these changes to the traditional stand-in-line, check-in-with-a-nice-lady-and-go-into-a-booth-and-vote model, the electorate continues to be older than the population as a whole. This does not portend well for our future, given that we may see an ever shrinking electorate, with the result that more power will reside with the few.

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Nationwide, the Democratic Party is looking to find itself and perhaps even reinvent itself. The lack of enthusiasm this election cycle may point to larger problems within the Democratic coalition. In Boston, Clinton’s most loyal support came from the black community. Yet at the same time, these neighborhoods also experienced the steepest declines in voter turnout. The Democratic Party needs to not take these votes for granted. Instead, they should be exploring new ways to make voters enthusiastic about supporting the party and its candidates. The party platform must speak to the policy needs of the black community and reach out to those who voted for a third party or write-in candidate, and even those that chose not to vote, while simultaneously showing empathy for those traditional Democrats who may have strayed, in a determinative way, in other states.

James Sutherland is research director for Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern UniversityLawrence S. DiCara is a partner at Nixon Peabody and a former president of the Boston City Council.