Yesterday's vote for City Council resulted in two changes: John Connolly replacing Félix Arroyo as Councilor at Large, and Mark Ciommo taking the Allston-Brighton district seat being given up by Jerry McDermott. But the most dramatic difference may have been the slump in voter turnout.
Even compared with the last off-year city election four years ago, with candidates only for the Council, the number of votes cast this year was down by more than 30%. Voter turnout was 13.59%. In the last two similar elections--for City Council only--the turnout percentage was much higher: 24.49% in 1999 and 24.60% in 2003. Though there was a very small change in turnout percentage between 1999 and 2003, there was still a noticeable increase in the number of people who voted (11.83%), thanks in part to an increase in voter registration.
In traditional high-turnout areas such as South Boston and Ward 20 (West Roxbury and part of Roslindale), the number of voters yesterday was down from 2003 by more than 25%. But the decrease was even larger in parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. In Ward 14, which goes from Grove Hall to Mattapan's Wellington Hill area, the number of people voting this year was down from November of 2003 by 54.85%. In one part of Boston's Latino community, around Hyde Square, the number was down by 56.06%.
Among the factors in the turnout was yesterday's rainy weather. Another factor was the decrease in campaigning. With only 9 candidates running at large, there was no preliminary election this year. Of those candidates, only 5 were competitive enough to get even 4% of the vote. Four years ago, there was a preliminary election at large with 14 candidates. In 1999, there were 15.
So how bad was the bad turnout? Given that some of the largest decreases in voters were in areas showing dramatic gains in recent years, the results may have been an aberration, saying less about voters than the field of candidates and their campaigns. The lack of a preliminary narrowed the spotlight in the mainstream media. In comments after the election, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino cited the drop in media coverage, but also the apparent lack of issues that could mobilize voters. There were differences among candidates about school assignments, how to make rental housing more affordable, and the level 4 biolab. Together with some less sharply contrasted ideas about public safety, education, and property taxes, the issues talk might very well have come across as a blur. That could happen in any off-year city election. So there may be something to the mayor's observation about one other factor: simply that running for City Council has become less attractive for potential candidates.