Less than one-third of registered voters participated in Boston’s municipal elections

Rene Droz, who initially called himself "Uncle Sam," of Dorchester collected posters from the outside of St. Mark's Elementary School polling locations in Boston to collect posters on Nov. 2. (Photo by Charles Taylor/BU News Service)

By Charles Taylor
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Despite a hotly contested mayoral campaign that saw daily media coverage and millions spent in advertising dollars, just under a third of Boston’s eligible voters — 143,547 out of 442,049 — participated in Tuesday’s election, according to data from the city’s election department.

But as low as that number is, it is consistent with turnout in other Boston elections. The four previous municipal elections in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017, had an average turnout of 33.19% compared to Tuesday’s 32.47%.

Boston University political scientist, Katherine Levine Einstein, said Tuesday’s vote had two factors against better participation. 

“Local elections are generally low turnout affairs, but in particular this is an off-cycle election,” said Einstein, who studies local politics and policy. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that turnout this year was abysmal because it’s generally not great for local politics and it’s especially terrible when you’re off-cycle from a presidential year.” 

“In some ways, you could almost call this an off-off-cycle,” Einstein said. “In off-cycle elections, we often think about things like midterms. But this didn’t coincide with any federal or state-level election.”

Still, it was a clear victory for Michelle Wu, who received 64.2% of the vote despite only 20.8% of registered Bostonians voting for her.

Einstein said the result would not have changed with a higher turnout; in fact, a higher turnout would have likely benefitted Wu.

“Young people, immigrants, and voters of color were less likely to turn up in an off-cycle election,” Einstein said. “Given the general trends, I would expect all of those groups to lean more towards Michelle Wu rather than Annissa Essaibi George.”

One of the election’s unaccounted voters was Rene Droz of Dorchester, who worked the polls at St. Mark’s Elementary School in Ward 16.

“I went into my polling place but it was too busy,” he said of Ward 17’s Lower Mills Library in Dorchester. Despite not voting, Droz was dressed for the occasion, wearing a full “Uncle Sam” costume.

Gauging turnout on the ground can be tricky, though.

Michael Falon of Dorchester also spent his Election Day outside St. Mark’s Elementary School polling location in Ward 16, holding a pink sign supporting Annissa Essaibi George.

“I have seen a lot of people come and go,” he said. “It’s been pretty busy, above average.”

Falon admitted the turnout would only be clear once all the ballots had been counted. “You have the write-ins and all the other means of voting now so you cannot compare it to other years.”

Falon drew his assumptions from experience. The native of Galway, Ireland, has been supporting candidates at polling locations for a long time. “I’ve been doing this since I started my apprenticeship with Mayor Menino,” he joked.

Tuesday’s election saw an increase of 34,816 ballots from the Sept. 14 primary, with a total of 108,731 ballots cast and a turnout of approximately 24.84%, according to the Election Department.

Tuesday also had a better turnout than Boston’s last mayoral race in 2017, which saw current U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh elected with a voter turnout of 109,034 voters, or 27.80% of all registered voters.

Tuesday’s election turnout was less than half of last year’s presidential election, which saw 68.36% of eligible Boston voters cast a ballot.

“It’s just always the case that national elections are higher turnout affairs,” said Einstein, citing factors including more politically polarized candidates who are easier to learn about, campaign spending on advertising, and national media coverage.

In contrast, in a local election like Tuesday’s, “The two candidates in Boston were both Democrats. There were some important differences in their platforms, but you kind of had to do some research to figure that out,” Einstein said.

“You don’t have the same level of excitement that you do with a national election,” she said.

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