Huge bump seen in voter turnout. But will it last?

There were only two people standing on the traffic island in middle of Blue Hill Avenue with an Obama-Biden sign, but horns could be heard for several blocks around.

It was election day in Grove Hall.

Propping up the blue sign were the founder of the local radio station, TOUCH FM 106.1, Charles Clemons, and the executive director of the Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corp., Sister Virginia Morrison. Each of them held the sign with one hand and waved at the traffic with the other. And whenever they waved, someone answered with a triumphant honk.

"It's a wonderful day in the neighborhood," Morrison exulted.

One reason to exult was the commanding vote for her candidate. Another was the increase in the Grove Hall vote count. In one of the areas near the same intersection, Ward 14, Precinct 1, the number of votes cast last Tuesday had risen over the figure for the 2000 presidential election - the last to fill a vacancy in the White House - by 66 percent.

Since 1996, the presidential year count had increased by 80 percent.

What happened last week in Grove Hall was happening in several areas around the city where normal turnouts used to run lower than average. Most of these were areas where voters were predominantly people of color - from Asian-Americans in Chinatown to Latinos around Jamaica Plain's Hyde Square, along parts of Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester dominated by African- Americans and other immigrants, whether from Haiti, Vietnam, or Cape Verde.

"People were engaged in this election," Mayor Thomas Menino told Neighborhood Network News, "and they wanted to make changes, but also they had a candidate they believed in. That's why we had such a huge turnout in the City of Boston."

While votes cast in this year's election around the country had increased over November, 2004 by no more than 5 percent, the increase in Boston was slightly short of 15 percent.

Compared with the election in November, 2000, the number of people voting in Boston last Tuesday had increased by 17.75 percent - despite an increase in the number of eligible people who didn't vote. There were more votes cast in almost every ward. But one area traditionally known for high totals - Ward 20 (West Roxbury and Roslindale) - had an increase of less than 6 percent over the figures for the last two presidential elections.

At the other end of the chart were neighborhoods with very sharp increases, such as Chinatown (Ward 3, Precinct 8), with almost 96 percent over the total for 2000, and Dorchester's Ward 15 (Fields Corner/Bowdoin-Geneva/Meetinghouse Hill) at more than 58 percent. Close behind was Ward 14 (Grove Hall/Four Corners/Franklin Field/Wellington Hill), with an increase over 2000 by more than 57 percent. Compared with Election Day 2000, vote totals for Roxbury wards increased anywhere from 41 to as much as 72 percent.

Less dramatic increases in the same areas had been seen in other recent elections, especially the one in November, 2006, when Deval Patrick became the first person of color to be elected Governor of Massachusetts. Vote totals in the same parts of the city also showed a higher percentage gain in city elections for 2003 and 2005, though not for 2007.

"So we're seeing an excitement around getting civically engaged that, to a large degree we lost," the deputy director of MassVOTE, David Ortiz, said in an interview last week on Neighborhood Network News. "We've always talked about the possibility of trying to get a holiday to happen on election day, and I have to say that I think everyone would agree that it seemed as though this election was a holiday. People were celebrating like it was the Fourth of July."

Among the neighborhoods where voters came out early in large numbers was Chinatown.

"People were lined up before 7 a.m. when the polls opened," said the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, Lydia Lowe. "The line was out to the end of the street." To accommodate elderly voters waiting in line, she added, community activists even provided chairs.

Lowe acknowledges that some of the neighborhood's increase in voters results from new housing developments, with many newer non-Chinese residents from Chinatown proper and the adjoining Leather District.

But Lowe says the turnout has also been increased by voter workshops that drew "several hundred" residents, mainly Chinese-speaking. Under an agreement with the US Dept. of Justice, those voters could use ballots almost entirely in Chinese, except for the names of candidates. In the workshops, the candidates' names were transliterated into Chinese characters.

Lowe says what's gained in translation is that immigrant voters who have become US citizens feel more competent to decide elections.

"It's a sense of empowerment," she said. "Since Chinatown's vote has increased over the past ten years, politicians pay attention to Chinatown."

Novel grassroots campaigns without explicit connection to candidates were going on in other parts of the city as well. In Jamaica Plain, teens in the Hyde Square Task Force tried to reach voters through phone banks and house calls. The message was that a "No" vote on Question 1 (the proposed abolition of the state income tax) was a vote for their future.

Ortiz says that kind of community networking is a two-way street, channeling the community's support for potential candidates, and the candidates' support for needs in the community.

"These community-based organizations can now say they have a base - they have a base of voters - in the sense of a community-based organization," he said. "They will try to use that base to get them involved in the issues, get them involved in services that they have, or try to get them to become volunteers."

Between Election Day, 2000 and last Tuesday, the number of people voting in one area around Hyde Square (Ward 10, Precinct 6) increased by almost 62 percent. Over the same period, the number of registered voters in the precinct had risen by 90 percent.

And Ortiz sees a parallel between turnout and registration campaigns in Boston and the widespread use of grassroots volunteers in campaign Obama's campaign around the country.

"I think what candidates have done," he said, "is they've learned from organizations like MassVOTE that, if you try an organic approach, more holistic approach, an approach that's sort of led from the bottom-up, that folks want to get more involved, that there's more motivation, and because of that, more participation. And I think that more candidates are starting to see that and starting to mimic that model."

Among those candidates Ortiz includes two getting off to a head start on campaigns for City Councillor at-Large - Felix G. Arroyo and Jean Claude Sanon.

Also taking note of the grassroots factor is Sam Yoon, a City Councillor at Large who is reportedly raising money for a possible attempt at higher office.

"A lot of these groups penetrated parts of the community that are harder to reach for either (presidential) campaign," said Yoon.

While there was little doubt who would carry the state for President, Yoon said areas with the largest increase in votes were drawn by the urge to support a candidate - and to participate.

"Obama inspired that," said Yoon. "His message inspired that kind of participation - that feeling that everyone mattered, no matter what their race, creed, or community."

And Yoon says that meant getting voters to think, not as isolated individuals acting only on self-interest, but as people connected to other people.

"This is important in a democracy," he said, "that we feel that connectedness to each other."

But last year's election for City Council showed that voter participation can also sharply decrease. Because 2007 was an off-year election, with no race for mayor, a relatively low turnout had been expected. As it happened, there were barely enough at-large candidates to require a preliminary September election throughout the city, and even fewer candidates with competitive campaigns.

When the City Council and Mayor Menino passed a special measure to skip the preliminary election for Council at-Large, there was little opposition, even from grassroots organizations. When the single at-large election took place in November, the number of voters plummeted, in some areas below the levels for 1999. The turnout figure was 13.59 percent.

Yoon was quick to note that one difference between last year and this year was the change in candidates.

"Now that these folks have been engaged," said Yoon, "it's up to us to keep them engaged in the political process."

And Ortiz says there should be a carry-over of newly-engaged voters in years ahead.

"I think what's left over will come with the face of those that are 18 to 29, because they were the ones that really turned out this year," said Ortiz. "What we saw was a younger generation of voters that we've never seen before, which is completely different from the past, when it was older folk that were actually going out to vote in large numbers."

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