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It’s time to end off-year elections

Cheryl Crawford | 11/16/2017, 6 a.m.
After Boston’s sleepy municipal elections produced an anemic 27 percent voter turnout, it’s clear that something needs to change… and ...
Campaign volunteers and candidates reach out to passersby at the Higginson-Lewis School polling location in Roxbury. Banner photo

After Boston’s sleepy municipal elections produced an anemic 27 percent voter turnout, it’s clear that something needs to change… and it’s the date.

We just turned our clocks back to observe the end of Daylight Savings Time. Now it’s time for Elections Savings Time.

Cheryl Crawford

Banner photo

Cheryl Crawford

By cancelling our off-year local elections and moving them to align with the presidential year, we could boost turnout in general, and especially among communities of color.

Off-year elections in Boston, and other majority-minority cities like Lawrence, Springfield and Worcester always have much lower turnout than presidential and congressional year elections.

Why? Diverse workers and busy parents vote in major elections every two years, but can’t always find the time to do the same for local, off-year elections. Also, there is not much general awareness, advertising or media coverage in off-years.

The result is that the people who do vote in local elections tend to be more affluent, and don’t reflect the economic and racial diversity of the people who actually live in our cities.

We just elected and re-elected several mayors and city councilors across the state who will want to come into office with bold ideas. MassVOTE challenges them to do what is right, and propose a change in the dates of municipal elections.

We need only to look to Baltimore for evidence that this works. The city recently switched its elections to the even year and has already shown strong improvements in turnout. In the last municipal election before the switch, just 15 percent of eligible Baltimore voters cast a ballot. In 2016, the first election after the switch, 60 percent voted. By combining elections, Baltimore also spends less of their budget on elections, saving money for critical services to residents. Los Angeles, too, is in the process of changing their dates. If Baltimore and LA can do it, then so can Boston and other major urban cities across our state.

Let’s be clear — this is not about advancing specific candidates. MassVOTE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that has worked to increase civic engagement and reduce racial and economic disparities in voter participation for nearly 16 years.

I personally believe that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh would have won re-election regardless of the date, due to the large coalition he assembled, and GOTV operation he successfully executed on the ground.

But what would have been different, is that Walsh and challenger Tito Jackson would have had the opportunity to take their issues to more voters, with more time to vote, and that would be good for all of us.

MassVOTE has successfully led campaigns to modernize our elections and eliminate barriers to voting. We lobbied for early voting, online voter registration and pre-registration for 16 and 17 year-olds, all of which are now Massachusetts law. We have also fought in court to end arbitrary voter registration deadlines. It’s now time to push our leaders to save our local contests, by ending low-turnout off-year elections.

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford is executive director of MassVOTE. Learn more at www.MassVOTE.org