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!
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?
 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.