Large percentage of constituents reported not planning on casting their ballot during canvassing 2 weeks prior to Nov. 2nd election day.
In the final push to engage with constituents and increasing voter turnout for the Boston mayoral election, candidate Michelle Wu campaign hosted a number canvassing events. However, responses received in Ward 3, the Downtown area, showed that while many support Wu and would want her to be the next mayor of Boston, they did not actually plan on or expect to show up and cast their ballots.
The state of Massachusetts is often described as being very liberal and politically active; in fact, a survey conducted by ShieldCo showed that Massachusetts residents are willing to travel up to 7.2 hours for protests that they believe in, which is significantly higher than the 5.5 hours of the national average. Specifically in Boston, out of the 430,000+ registered voters, 300,000 people showed up and voted during the 2020 Presidential Election, yet only around 100,000 showed up for the preliminary mayoral election just a few months ago.
During the 2 hours of canvassing, the author was able to see a continuous trend amongst the respondents — most stated that they would vote for Wu, particularly due to her platform on focusing on racial justice and her approach on the housing crisis. However, when asked if they had plans to vote, most stated that they simply did not have the time, that they did not want to lose the salary for the hours spent voting, that they have other priorities (i.e. childcare), and that they did not think that their one vote would affect the results much. Of those who were willing to expand on their opinions, many stated that they believe Wu is going to win anyways, and perhaps more alarmingly, many also stated that it is not that “significant of an election”, as Massachusetts is such a liberal state, no matter who the mayor is, their lives would not be affected much anyways.
So why is having a low voter turnout worrisome?
When learning about democratic erosion, one of the leading theories is the role the political culture plays in the process. While noting that only having heard from respondents from a specific area in Ward 3 and that their opinions do not represent everyone in the city of Boston, the fact that the majority of people the author spoke to expressed their support for a candidate but are not planning to vote shows that the political culture, at least in Ward 3, is not one that shows political engagement and enough concern in an election that determines the next leader of their city.
In a widely-reference paper on the issues of having low voter turnout rates written by Arend Lijphart, he mentions 5 major reasons why we should all be concerned when turnout rates are low in democracies. Of the 5, 2 are particularly relevant and applicable here — low turnout means low participation by less privileged citizens, and that unequal participation means unequal influence. Surely, those who are more privileged can afford to take time out of their day to vote, as they can afford nannies for childcare or not have to worry that missing the salary for a few hours would affect whether or not they can pay for rent or their next meal. And if the political culture remains as is — not feeling the need to show up to vote for mayoral elections — future candidates eventually will also realize that their policies may need to shift towards benefiting the privileged to ensure that they can win elections.
What can be done to increase voter turnout?
Despite the Massachusetts Law, MGL c.149 § 178, requiring certain industries to allow employees 2 hours time-off during election days, it also states that these 2 hours do not have to be paid. This furthers to point made previously by respondents during canvassing, that they just cannot afford to or do not think it is worth to lose the salary for the mayoral election. A simple short-term solution would be to require companies to still pay for the 2 hours that employees use to cast their ballots. However, with the current political culture of people feeling that whoever wins the mayoral election would not affect their lives significantly, this simple change may not encourage people to show up and vote still. Furthermore, business owners, who are the privileged and big donors to candidates, may make the process of passing this change to the Law challenging.
A long-term solution would be to start educating the next generation of voters earlier on and in more depth on the power of each vote. The NAEP Report Card examines American 8th-grade students’ level of knowledge and understanding on civics; the most recent results from 2018 (average score of 153) showed no significant difference from their first assessment in 1998 (average score of 150). This shows that our our education on civic engagement to our future generations has not changed significantly in 20 years, and that it is no surprise that there is a low voter turnout. Without significant change in how we educate the next generation of voters, it is unlikely that the political culture can be expected to change as well.