Opinion: When Medford Denied My Vote

Medford City Hall. Photo via Flickr, by cmh2315fl, licensed via CC 2.0.

By Vincent Gabrielle
BU News Service

On Election Day, I woke up with a migraine, a fever and high viral titer. I was sick. However, I wasn’t going to let my fever and general unsteadiness stop me from voting for Medford city council. I schlepped down to the polling station at an elementary school, gave the poll worker my name and waited for my ballot. I expected to vote, then return home to sleep.

Instead, I was turned away. I wasn’t offered a provisional ballot either. 

“Well, you’re living with one of the candidates,” the poll worker told me. “So I don’t feel comfortable offering it to you.”

It was true. I was living with and related to one of the candidates, Ann Marie Cugno. She’s my second cousin on my mother’s side. In all the pre-vote preparations I’d made, it had never occurred to me that this would be an issue. Nor did it occur to me that registering to vote online (and again at the DMV) wouldn’t work in Medford.

If my fever had been less than 100 degrees, I would have said, “I didn’t know my rights were dependent on whether or not I was living with a candidate.”

I live in Medford, just north of Boston, on the Wellington stop of the Orange Line. My cousins and I live in an old, working class neighborhood. They have owned the house since the 20s and used to know all the families in the neighborhood. But in recent years, rising house prices have driven several residents away. My eldest cousin often points out the buildings getting flipped for rich tenants.

Medford is a city with lots of problems. Luxury apartments are springing up all along the Mystic River waterfront. There’s even a casino slated for construction soon. At the Amici Center election party, I heard people worry openly about “becoming the next Somerville,” meaning displacement and gentrification.

Meanwhile, the local Department of Public Works convenes in a deteriorating old building. The sidewalks are an ADA compliance nightmare, and potholes—a perennial small-town issue—are everywhere. My cousins really care about this stuff. When we talk, it’s nothing but local issues. It’s hard not to get invested.

I usually participate in local politics. Low voter turnout means I can (sort of) influence an election. Unfortunately, Medford, among all its other issues, makes voting nearly impossible for new transplants.

Students at Tufts spar annually with the city government for the right to vote. The university is divided between multiple precincts, which makes the process of getting to the right polling place confusing. The Tufts ACLU chapter  got involved in 2016 to monitor polls and prevent students from being turned away.

There were fourteen candidates for city council this year. Of the fourteen, half had given shot statements to Wicked Local about their candidacy. All of them had posted 10-minute videos online that were full of local qualifiers—“I went to the public schools here” or “My kids grew up here”—and short on positions.

There’s a blog run by a local man known for getting into fights with city councilors that made liberal use of ALLCAPS with dubious info. He’s not running, but he really hates the mayor. The impression I got was that this election wasn’t really for me so much as it was for people who had known the candidates since birth and already made up their minds.  

At the election party, my cousin, Cugno, fretted amongst supportive friends and family. We were in an Italian-American family club, incongruously next door to a metalworking shop. The news came in. She had lost. All the incumbents had won. Sitting at the bar, I watched my cousin talk with a group that included State Rep Paul J. Dontano.

“These guys sat on their butts for years doing nothing and they still won,” someone said. 

“People say they want change but then they vote in the same people,” said another. But I wasn’t so sure.

I don’t think Medford wanted more of the same. I think it’s a good bet that, in a city election with many candidates and no coverage, you’re going to get incumbent winners. If you make registering hard, you’re going to see the same thing.

Next time, sick or not, I will demand a provisional ballot. Let’s see them drag my flu-bedraggled body from the polls next November.

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