The incredibly vanishing Boston voter

City residents turn out for presidential races, but have become increasingly scarce in municipal elections

WE HAVE LOOKED at voter turnout in each off-year Boston City Council election beginning in 1985 – the first off-year election after the change in the structure of government brought about by a referendum four years prior.  There has been a decline in participation in off-year city elections, even as the population has increased and even as the number of those in Boston voting for the president has also increased slightly.  In a previous article, we reported that at least 100,000 Boston voters only cast ballots once every four years — in presidential elections.

Year Number Voting Turnout Percentage
1985 66,453 23.30%
1989 78,263 31.98%
1995 66,266 31.54%
1999 58,876 24.48%
2003 66,612 24.60%
2007 46,249 13.60%
2011 63,009 18.14%


We think that miserable turnout trend will be even worse this November than in prior off-year elections, with likely fewer than 50,000 voters coming to the polls. This is for a number of reasons. First of all, there are very few contests due to the lack of candidates running to unseat incumbents. Only two city council districts – Districts 4 and 7 – held preliminary elections on September 8. The turnout for District 4 was 8.4 percent; the turnout for District 7 was 5.6 percent. Second, there are just five candidates running for the four at large council seats, the smallest number in anyone’s memory. Third, very few dollars will be spent until well into the fall; there will be fewer standouts and fewer phone calls; less literature will be mailed by fewer candidates, especially by those who have no contest at all.  Anyone who has ever studied politics understands that activity generates turnout.

Furthermore, we believe that this is indicative of an increasingly bifurcated electorate, with a large group that votes quadrennially, is younger, and more educated, while another group votes, which votes an annual basis, tends to be older and more set in their ways.

Boston off-year voter turnout

Boston voter turnout for off-year municipal elections


According to the 2010 US Census, the median age in Boston is just under 31 years old. We believe that in coming November city election, the average voter in the nation’s youngest city will be between 65 and 70.

Consider the last off-year election, 2011, when the at-large city council race was quite heated, with then-former councilor Michael Flaherty challenging the four incumbents.  In District 9, which stretches from Boston University to Boston College and encompasses effectively all of Allston and Brighton, the electorate continued to shrink for an off-year election and the percentage of those voting who are elderly or disabled and living in subsidized housing – where the outside world has little impact on what they pay for rent or the quality of their lives – continues to increase.  We looked at three sets of apartment buildings and found that in the 2011 November city election, 500 “captive elderly” living in subsidized units in these three complexes accounted for 14.4 percent of the total electorate in District 9.

Elderly Housing Complex Number of voters in 2011
Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly    331
Patricia White Apartments    100
Covenant House     69


Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

To be a vibrant, a world class city, Boston needs more representative participation in elections that determine who serves on the City Council. Those of us who live in Boston must question why almost as many people fill Fenway Park 81 times a year as vote in a municipal election in a city of over 650,000 people.

Lawrence S. DiCara, a former Boston City Council president, is a partner at Nixon Peabody. James Sutherland is research director for Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, and an instructor and PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. Samuel True Adams is s a member service specialist at Minuteman Health, Inc. and a fan service coordinator with the Boston Red Sox