Today, New Bedford voters will decide who should represent them on the City Council, the School Committee and Board of Assessors. This election will have far-reaching implications, as the city contemplates how it will move beyond COVID-19.
The pandemic has not only made clear the public health inequities that plague the city, but the racial, educational, economic, and housing inequities that persist, too. The city has at least some means to address these, as its annual budget reaches upwards of $430 million. So voters must ask themselves: how do they want New Bedford to exist in a post-COVID world?
For many, it doesn’t feel like much is at stake. New Bedford’s local elections traditionally see abysmal turnout. Voter participation reached 25% in 2017, 23% in 2015, and 19% in 2013. Since there is no mayoral race on the ballot (due to a City Charter change that moves mayoral elections to every four years) there is little reason to hope that New Bedford will see increased turnout in today’s election. In the Sept. 28 preliminary election, which featured three candidates vying for the Ward 5 City Council seat, less than 7 percent of the ward’s registered voters cast ballots.
New Bedford is far from alone here. Communities across Massachusetts suffer from abysmal local election turnout. The paradox is just as frustrating as it is stunning: the elections that have the greatest impact on our day-to-day lives routinely receive the least attention.
Understanding why this occurs also helps us understand how to confront the problem. According to the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank, a dramatically changing media environment has forced many Americans to reconsider what is most important to them. Since 1990, the number of Americans who consume local news via print or television has decreased dramatically. Meanwhile, online news outlets and cable networks have risen in prominence. As a result, people pay more attention to national politics than they do local politics. So, while a majority of the electorate turns out for presidential elections, a sliver turns out for local ones.
How can we fix this? Broad, systemic reform is needed at both the municipal and state level to seriously challenge this reality. But achieving that change will take years. So, right now, our request is simple: just vote.
Polls are open Tuesday, Nov. 2, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Find your polling location on the city’s website.
View a map of New Bedford’s wards and precincts:
Find sample ballots for all five city wards.
For more election information, visit the city’s Election Commission website.
ELECTION RESULTS: Check back with The New Bedford Light on Tuesday night for election results.
COMING THURSDAY: New Bedford Light columnist Jack Spillane delivers insight and analysis on Tuesday’s municipal elections.
Your vote is of immense importance in local elections because that is where it has the most power. When policy reform happens at the local level, you see and feel it almost instantly. Three policy areas exemplify this.
The first is police reform. In light of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, tens of millions of Americans called on police departments to change. But what that change looks like has mostly been decided at the local level. Should the city hire fewer police officers? Should it bolster nonviolent interventionist resources? Should it reduce the police department’s overall budget? As these questions were being asked across America, they were being answered in city halls. Voting for offices like city councilor remains one of the most effective ways you can have your voice heard in the police reform debate.
The second policy area is education. The School Committee decides the city’s superintendent and public school budget. It also establishes educational goals and policies for the district. Upon the superintendent’s recommendation, it establishes and appoints additional positions like special education administrators and school physicians. In a city with tens of thousands of public-school students, the importance of the School Committee cannot be overstated. These officials play a massive role in deciding what, how, and when students learn. They lay the foundation for what sort of future the children of New Bedford may live. This year, because two members decided to step down, there are three candidates vying for three seats on the School Committee in New Bedford, leaving the race essentially unopposed.
The third area is housing. The New Bedford Housing Authority manages the city’s public housing, playing a critical role in managing properties that serve as reliable, secure places for families to call home. To be effective, the Housing Authority must prioritize quality, respect, and accountability in serving 6,000-plus individuals. New Bedford voters play a crucial role in this process. The mayor appoints and the City Council confirms four of the Housing Authority’s five commissioners (the governor appoints the fifth). If voters wish to reform affordable housing, or address specific issues they have, then their vote for City Council will directly influence what affordable housing looks like in New Bedford.
It may not seem like there are many reasons to vote in local elections. But there are. Issues like police reform, education, and housing are just a few of them. So, if you are wondering what you can do to make your community just a little bit better, the answer is clear: just vote.
Alex Psilakis is the policy and communications manager at MassVOTE, a statewide non-partisan, non-profit issue advocacy organization dedicated to voting rights and voter education.
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