Bostonians went to the polls on Tuesday in record numbers.
Unfortunately, it’s the kind of record that brings shame on a city that prides itself on progress and civic engagement.
The preliminary Boston City Council election drew just 7.1 percent of registered voters in Districts 7 and 4, the two city council districts that featured contests on Tuesday. That’s more than a point lower than the last dismal turnout record, set in the April 1, 2014 special final election for state senate and representative, which, in fairness, featured party nominees running with no real opposition.
There have been “off-year” municipal stinkers in the recent past that are more comparable to this one: The 2007 city council preliminary drew just 12.7 percent of registered voters. In 2011, 13.8 percent of the city electorate showed up.
The downward trend in city turnout is starkly laid out in the attached graphic prepared by the MassINC Polling Group, which has done admirable work in chronicling the surge in apathy among city voters. Even the 2013 general election for Boston mayor was a major disappointment, with just 38.2 percent of the city’s voters coming out to choose a new mayor for the first time in a generation.
Blame it on the candidates – or the lack thereof – if you want, but there’s something more sinister and systemic embedded in these plunging numbers. It clearly did not help that this preliminary election was timed for the Tuesday after Labor Day, when so many city residents were unplugged from the news or may have been traveling. Tuesday was also the first day of school for many families, a stressful time for everyone involved. And, of course, there was no citywide contest for at-large seats to generate activity and at least some level of excitement beyond Districts 4 and 7. It was 90 degrees or more in the city on Tuesday and many at-risk people were encouraged to stay cool and indoors.
We could keep piling on the excuses until we run off this page. But, clearly, there should be no acceptable reason for why more than 90 percent of folks who bothered at some point to sign up to vote just didn’t care enough to show up on Tuesday. It’s disgraceful and pathetic.
Clearly, there needs to be a new approach to engaging residents in participating in our democracy. Perhaps that will mean moving election “day” to a Saturday or offering more than one day at the polls.
Whatever the case, the present trend undermines our system of government in insidious ways. The non-voter may believe this takes them “off the hook” in some twisted way, as they can claim – outrageously – to be without fault in how the folks chosen to govern our affairs perform. But, in fact, their ambivalence is a form of self-destruction that can and should be held up to ridicule. They are the 92.9 percent – and that, fellow neighbors, is a frightening proposition.