Newton’s Turnout Problem

If you don’t vote, you don’t count.  At least, that’s how politicians see it.  And from that perspective, 80% of Newton’s registered voters didn’t count in last November’s municipal election, even though this turnout was an improvement from previous municipal elections in non-mayoral years   ̶̶   up from 18% in 2011 and 17% in 2007, and not far short of the 24.5% who voted in our 2013 mayoral election.

Why are Newton’s municipal election turnouts, especially in non-mayoral years, so low?  Are people relatively content, and just don’t want to bother?  Or do they feel powerless, bound by “learned helplessness”?  Or perhaps these turnouts are simply normal for aldermanic (now city councilor) elections?

The last hypothesis is certainly false.  Compare our last aldermanic election with 1971’s. Then, 64% of registered voters cast ballots, because the election was held jointly with the biennial mayoral election.  Thereafter,  our current Charter gave us four-year mayoral terms, while aldermen continued to be elected bi-annually.  This reduced turnouts and helped insulate incumbents from effective competition.  These charter changes followed the example of upper-middle class Progressive reformers in the early 1900s. They decoupled lower office elections from higher ones in the interest of “good government,” often drastically reducing voter turnout.  While these reforms were aimed at eliminating fraud and corruption and improving the efficiency of governing, they were also a means of keeping “less desirable elements” from voting.  These reforms helped bring American turnouts down to record lows in the early 20th century.

Of course, when more important offices are at stake, turnouts tend be higher, just as turnouts in presidential elections usually are about 20 percentage points higher than in off-year Congressional races.

But beyond the decoupling of these elections, there are larger changes that have been at work in American political culture that also account for our declining municipal turnouts.  And before we get too critical of ourselves, we should put Newton’s poor turnouts in context with trends elsewhere.

First, from 1960 to 1996, declining political machines and labor unions and increasing individualism all led to a major long-term drop in presidential turnouts, especially among the less educated and poor through 1996.  Since 1996, turnouts in presidential elections have rebounded, and now come close to 1930’s-to-1960 levels.

Second, Congressional turnout declines have been much more sustained and destructive of participation.   2014’s national turnout of 36% of the voting eligible population (as opposed to registered voters) was the lowest since 1942, as Professor Michael McDonald of the U.S. Elections Project has detailed.  Perhaps even more tellingly, as political scientists Walter Dean Burnham and Thomas Ferguson have noted, the “drop-off” in turnout from presidential to off-year elections from 2008 to 2010, and 2012 to 2014 were the third- and second-biggest such declines, respectively, in American electoral history.  Likewise, in 2014, as they also point out, many northern, industrialized states   ̶̶   such as Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware  ̶̶  had their lowest turnouts in 2014 since the Jacksonian Revolution of the 1820s abolished property suffrage.  And California had its lowest turnout since statehood in 1850.  As the outsider campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are demonstrating, and as these recent Congressional elections foreshadowed, more and more people have become frustrated with a system they perceive as responsive only to the needs of rich donors and the top 1%, rather than those of ordinary citizens.

U.S. turnout is also way down in municipal elections in large cities in general.  For instance, in the nation’s 22 largest cities turnout in 2011 ranged from a high of 43% in San Francisco to a low of 6% in San Antonio.  Most averaged between 15% and 30%.  Newton, despite its relatively high income and educational levels   ̶   factors which usually boost turnout   ̶   had only an average turnout in 2013 (see Table 2), compared to Massachusetts’ 13 other largest cities.  But, as Table 3 shows, it had the most “drop-off” of any of these cities!

table2 table3Astonishingly, 55% fewer Newton voters voted in 2013’s mayoral election than for president in 2012, when 80% voted.

Why did such an affluent and well-educated electorate not bother to vote in 2013, and even fewer of them vote in 2015?  Perhaps people just feel safe, rich, and happy, with a fine school system, beautiful surroundings, and so on, and feel no need to distract themselves from their work and family to involve themselves in a system they feel works well enough without their participation?

Or perhaps a politics of powerlessness and alienation is at work.  Regarding the outcome of 2015’s election, one sees that turnout in Newtonville was higher than in any other ward and twice as high as several wards.  That’s unusual for Newtonville.  So was the fact that the ward as a whole favored challengers over incumbents in the at-large aldermanic races.  Doubtless Austin Street, Court Street, and other development issues played a role, and helped lead the charge to higher turnout in Ward 2, as perhaps did the holding of an earlier preliminary election also around development issues.  Good weather and a highly publicized, once-in-a-generation Charter election may also have played a role.

I can’t speak for people in other wards, but here in Ward 2 many people had the feeling that the City, along with the Democratic Party, the local media, and the ostensibly non-partisan League of Women Voters formed a kind of one-party system, whose goal was to force big-box developments down our throats and turn Newtonville center into Needham Street North.  That one of our at-large councilors drew the vast majority of her campaign contributions (about 95% the last I looked) from outside of Newtonville only reinforced this impression.

The lack of ability to recall our officials may also contribute to a sense of powerlessness.   Where I grew up (California) the ability to recall was taught in civics classes as an essential check on bad government.

What do you, dear readers, think?  If you don’t vote, can you tell us why?  And if you do, do you feel our government is responsive enough on the issues you care about?  Do we have too much of a one-party system?  If so, how might we get more competition and responsiveness?

[1] These municipal results, and all other municipal level figures discussed here, define turnout as a percentage of registered voters, which is how city officials usually report them.   I will follow their convention.  These turnouts would be even lower as a percentage of eligible voters, which would include those who do not register, about 15% of Newton’s 18 year-old+ population.



Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
8 Comment threads
5 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
7 Comment authors
Jeffrey PontiffPeter BruceSallee LipshutzI Have A 'Radical' Idea - NewtonForumJohn Koot Recent comment authors
newest oldest
Notify of
Colleen Minaker

Both Sanders and Trump are generating higher turnouts. This suggests that voters dislike the entrenched political parties that rule for their own benefit and not for the best interest of the electorate.

Lynne LeBlanc

Why the low turnout? Here are a few explanations: 1. I have a friend who insists things must be pretty good if people are not voting, and perhaps that’s how people in Newton feel if so few people are voting. 2. Many believe that national elections are more important and may not see voting at the local level as worth their time or effort. They may not fully comprehend that local issues are often more specific to local circumstances rather than general party affiliations. 3. We have an arcane and convoluted system, so it is quite difficult even for well informed people to figure it out. Ask the average voter from Ward 7 or 8 who the at-Large Councilors from Ward 1 or 2 and they will be hard pressed to give a correct name (if they can name anyone at all). Yet, without thinking those candidates are still voted in. It is no surprise that slates or endorsements are used because so many have so little knowledge of who candidates actually are. 4. Democracy and staying informed takes time. People lead busy lives. I have heard the following refrain more than I care to admit: “I have no idea what is going on so I ask my neighbor who does (x, y, or z in the City or School Department) how to vote.” 5. Newton’s political class exerts a lot of influence. Perhaps there is low turn out because so many are persuaded (wrongly in some cases) that their… Read more »

Doug Cornelius
Doug Cornelius

The obvious answer to low turnout is that there are few contested races at the municipal level. Less than half the wards had contested elections for city council, with Ward 2 having the most competitive. There were even fewer contested races for school committee. If there is little at stake, there is little reason for people to vote.

Lynne LeBlanc

@Doug Good point re: few contested races. I have always marveled at that aspect of Newton politics. Why do you think that is?

John Koot

This is a very thought-provoking piece, Peter. The figures you provide on voter participation in municipal voting are highly illuminating, if disheartening. Another drawback of holding local elections in odd years—when there are neither statewide nor national candidates and issues to motivate voters—is that, as we saw in the most recent election in Newton, it takes comparatively few voters to sway the results. Thus a well-organized effort to turn out voters focused on a single issue can have a significant impact. (Yes, I recognize that there may be an element of sour grapes there because some of the candidates I supported lost, but that doesn’t make my point any less valid.)


[…] John Koot on Newton’s Turnout Problem […]

Sallee Lipshutz

I believe that the problem is that people live very busy, high stress lives and shun interest in their local government because they believe (perhaps falsely) that they are immune to change that will impact them profoundly, if not negatively. Therefore, raising voter awareness is of paramount importance…not just to let them know who’s running for office, but to interest them also in participating themselves.

We have the tools right now to reach almost everyone…at least everyone who is attached to the internet. Our government has the ability to ask for name and address of the registered voter to prove residence in a certain Ward of Newton. If it were to add a mandatory request for an e-mail address as well, there would be a painless and free way to reach everyone who might exercise his/her right to vote. At that point, a ballot could be circulated to the electorate with biographies and/or statements prepared by the candidates before each election. If privacy concerns override this suggestion, another thought could be to have the City host a separate server with Newton e-mail addresses for every voter in the City that could have City e-mail be forwarded to that voter, but not e-mail from others (i.e., all e-mails sent to the voter from City Hall could be allowed and all others marked as spam).

Jeffrey Pontiff
Jeffrey Pontiff

Great Blog. I am sorry I came late to it.

As noted, contested elections create turnout. Elections where the incumbent does not seek office are more likely to be contested. One way to increase contested elections is to have term limits for the council.