Voters Young And Old

It’s not a sprawling metropolis, a center of industry, or an academic mecca, but West Tisbury takes the MVP Award. Most Voter Participation, that is.

In the second of CommonWealth‘s occasional reviews of voter turnout across the state, this small town on Martha’s Vineyard takes the prize for the highest percentage of registered voters going to the polls over the last two state elections. In 1996, a presidential-election year, 96.6 percent of those registered to vote in West Tisbury cast ballots. In the gubernatorial election of 1998, 75.9 percent of voters came out. That makes for a two-election average of 86 percent.

West Tisbury, explains Town Clerk Prudy Whiting, “is small. People are very aware of what’s going on. They’re informed and interested.”

West Tisbury takes the prize for most voter participation
Chilmark, West Tisbury’s island neighbor, is apparently informed and interested as well, ranking second in voter turnout over the past two elections (see box). Plainfield, Stow, and Eastham round out the top five towns in the exercise of democracy’s most basic right. The highest-voting towns are all small–populations less than 6,000, not counting the summer crowds on the Vineyard and in Eastham, on the Cape–and relatively affluent.

In contrast, the city of Lawrence managed to lure only 44.9 percent of its registered voters to the polls over the two-election period. Winchendon, Wareham, Chelsea, and Springfield also finished in the bottom five in voting. These municipalities vary in size and environs, but as a group they share higher-than-average unemployment rates and lower per capita incomes. In 1996, unemployment in these cities and towns (6.84 percent) was almost double that of the top five vote-casting towns. And according to the 1990 census, residents of these low-turnout locales earned only two thirds the income of those in high-turnout towns.

For cities and towns with populations over 20,000, Arlington (76.7 percent), Lexington (72.9 percent), Chelmsford (72.3 percent), Braintree (70.8 percent), and Barnstable (69.3 percent) had the highest voting rates.

“It’s hard to say what motivates people” to vote, says Wareham Town Clerk Mary Ann Silva. “There is a better turnout for presidential elections, but in the primaries it’s like they just don’t bother to vote.” Silva is trying to increase her town’s vote in the 2000 election through registration drives and advertisements reminding people to vote.

Lawrence City Clerk Jim McGravey says change is a factor in his city’s low turnout. “The complexion of Lawrence is changing,” says McGravey. “We have a significant minority population. The most recent haven’t become citizens or haven’t been acculturated and accustomed to the political landscape.”

Massachusetts voters do better than most when it comes to getting to the polls. In 1998, the statewide turnout of 57 percent surpassed the national average of 51.5 percent. And in the last presidential election, 74 percent of Massachusetts voters turned out, compared to a national average of 66 percent.

But voter participation has fallen, in Massachusetts and across the nation. The 1996 presidential-election turnout was off nine percentage points in Massachusetts from 1992, 12 percentage points nationally. The mid-term elections–gubernatorial elections in Massachusetts–showed an even steeper decline. The Massachusetts voting rate dropped 14 percentage points from 1994 to 1998, as the national average reached its lowest level since 1960, the first year results from the Federal Elections Commission were available.

Meet the Author
Even the Commonwealth’s paragons of civic virtue show signs of decline. In the town of Whately, which logged the highest turnouts in the state for the previous two elections, average turnout fell 15 percentage points, from 89 percent in 1992-94 to 74 percent in 1996-98. Ninety-one percent of Whately voters turned out in 1992, their interest perhaps piqued at the top of the ticket with the three-way presidential race (Reform Party upstart Ross Perot outpolled Republican George Bush in Franklin and three other Massachusetts counties) and an open seat in the First Congressional District. Further down the ticket was Whately’s own Frederick Macdonald (who, by his uncontested re-election six years later, had moved to Deerfield), running for sheriff. But by 1998, votes cast by Whately citizens had dropped from 871 to 636.

Whately Town Clerk Lynn Sibley has no explanation for the decline in voter interest. “We’re really kind of at a loss,” she says.

But some municipalities did improve their standings in the turnout tally, though not always because of a more active citizenry. Plymouth, which had the worst voting rate in the state for the 1992 and 1994 elections, jumped to roughly the state average for the last two elections. The town clerk credits the leap to cleaning up an outdated voting list.