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Civic community partnership helps Hub voter turnout soar

Jared Lindh | 2/18/2009, 3:31 a.m.

Fueled in part by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and high-profile elections featuring local legislators, Boston last year saw its highest rates of voter participation since the 1960s. Leading the electoral pack were the city’s minority communities, with ballot surges in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Mattapan.

While the decision to vote, and the credit for doing so, is ultimately left to the individual voter, these communities — along with others throughout Boston and Chelsea — benefited from the efforts of the Civic Engagement Initiative (CEI), a recently completed six-year voter mobilization effort.

Conceived in 2002, the CEI is the joint effort of Access Strategies Fund, the Boston Foundation, and a number of other local service-oriented nonprofit organizations. The initiative’s goal is to bridge Greater Boston’s much-publicized participation gap between white voters and minority voters, through grants and technical assistance to selected community groups in underserved areas of Boston and Chelsea.

The numbers are compelling.

According to the initiative’s recently released “Deepening Democracy through Citizen Engagement” report, from 2002 through 2008, the CEI selected 19 local organizations across Boston and Chelsea to receive $15,000 to $30,000 for “non-partisan voter registration and mobilization.” During that time, despite a relatively stable population, voter registration in CEI-targeted precincts increased by 33 percent (from 59,845 voters to 79,876) in the initiative’s first five years, nearly double the 18 percent increase seen in the rest of Boston (263,026 voters to 310,662) over the same time period.

Encouraging increased voter participation is both crucial and practical, according to the CEI. The group’s principals argue that poor voter turnout does more than cast a shadow of disinterest and apathy over the affected areas; the results are actually much more tangible.

“Voter mobilization contributes to a neighborhood’s ability to exert clout,” said Mark Pedulla of the Hyde Square Task Force, one of the initiative’s partner organizations. “From neighborhood services and street cleaning to trash pickup, higher-voting neighborhoods and precincts in the city have access to services in ways that lower-voting precincts do not.”

To begin the process of increasing turnout, the initiative’s partners first took a long look at the civic life of the communities they were targeting.

“It was clear to the community-based organizations in both Boston and Chelsea that there was a real marked difference between mainstream white voters and communities of color and low-income voters,” said Kelly Bates, executive director of Access Strategies Fund and a co-chair of the initiative.

By studying the differences, however, CEI found some successful strategies.

“It also became clear that there were really good examples of techniques of community-rooted organizations for getting their local voters to the polls,” added Bates, whose nonprofit group funds other organizations working to ensure fair voting access in traditionally marginalized communities.

Potential CEI partners were then identified and selected based on a number of criteria.

“We’re asking A) is there a community organization in place that actually has the capacity to … do some of the work, B) who is their base, C) what is the need in the neighborhood [and] D) what is the historical voter trend in that neighborhood?” said David Ortiz, CEI’s project director and deputy director of the statewide voter advocacy organization MassVOTE.