NEW BEDFORD — Two days after last month’s preliminary election, the city’s top elections official posed a question to a group of fifth graders at the Alfred J. Gomes Elementary School in the South End: could anyone guess the percentage of voters who cast ballots on Oct. 3?
Hands rose. Manny DeBrito, head of the Board of Election Commissioners, called on the youngsters one by one: 20% said one; 60% said another, 40% said a third. DeBrito answered: 6% — or 6.1 to be exact.
That was the turnout on Oct. 3, as 4,018 of 65,876 registered voters cast ballots for mayor, city councilors, and School Committee. It was the lowest preliminary city election turnout since at least 1979. Before that, records on city voter registration were not available.
“So, 6% are making decisions for 100,000 people,” DeBrito told the students.
He was at the Gomes School to talk with young people about voting and to spur them to encourage their parents to vote. School talks like these are part of an array of activities DeBrito has been pursuing since 2018 — minus pandemic interruption — meant to bolster turnouts that have been sagging for decades.
He’s been wrangling highway signs from the city Department of Public Infrastructure to post Election Day reminders, recruiting high school students as poll workers, and recording reminder robocalls to voters.
Nov. 7: Final municipal election. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nov. 17: Last day and hour (5 p.m.) to file for a recount for the final election.
Find a list of polling locations around New Bedford.
Use your address to find out where to vote at the Mass. Secretary of the Commonwealth website.
Find additional information about voting at the New Bedford Election Commission website.
For more on the election, visit our Election 2023 page.
The subject is coming up as the 2023 campaign unfolds. In response to a question about term limits at a candidates forum at Keith Middle School, At-large Councilor Naomi R. A. Carney said term limits means getting people out to vote.
“It’s a shame,” she said, referring to the turnout in the recently completed preliminary election. “We get 6% deciding who comes into their government.”
The figure is the lowest in a series of lows for both preliminary and final elections, with preliminary election turnouts consistently lagging behind the final.
Records show city election turnouts driven largely by the race for mayor, rising and falling between ranges that have been dropping since the 1980s.
The final election range in the 1980s was nearly 40% to 75%, hitting the high in 1985 when challenger John Bullard defeated Mayor Brian J. Lawler by three points.
In the 1990s, the turnout range was low 30s to 62%, the peak reached in 1995 as Mayor Rosemary Tierney, the first woman to be elected mayor, overcame a challenge from future mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. by four points.
In the 2000s the range was 20% to 47%, with voters turning out strongest in 2005 to give challenger Scott Lang a two-to-one margin in defeating Mayor Kalisz, who had served four terms.
The pattern repeated in the 2010s, ranging from a low of 16% to a high of 38% in 2011, after Mayor Lang had announced he would not seek another term. Jon Mitchell won the open mayor’s seat that year against state Rep. Antonio Cabral by about four points.
Mitchell — who has now served more consecutive years in office than any New Bedford mayor — has not had a competitive race since then, and does not appear to have one this year. Mitchell is facing a rematch with challenger Tyson Moultrie, a marketing and communications consultant whom Mitchell beat in 2019 by a margin of more than two to one.
In 2021 there was no mayor’s race at all as Mitchell, who won four two-year terms from 2011 to 2017, was elected to his first four-year term in 2019. The final election turnout in 2021 hit a new low of nearly 11%.
After hearing the New Bedford numbers back to 2009, Michael Hanmer, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies voting behavior, said “those are really low, but they’re not atypical” for city elections.
Indeed, the figures in other southeastern Massachusetts cities are in that range in the last 20 years.
In Brockton, final city election turnouts in the 2000s range from 20% to 35%, in the 2010s from 15% to 34%. The turnout in 2021 was 19%, with a race for mayor that was not competitive, as Mayor Robert Sullivan topped challenger Tina Cardoso more than two to one.
In Taunton, the range since 2009 has been from nearly 19% to 32%.
In Fall River, the range in the 2000s was 38% to 42%, in the 2010s 27% to 36%. The turnout in 2021, when Mayor Paul Coogan easily won a second term over challenger City Council President Cliff Ponte, was 24%
Turnouts could be considered even lower, as these figures are based on percentages of registered voters, rather than eligible voters. That number would be higher. In New Bedford, for instance, there are nearly 66,000 registered voters, but census figures show that the number of people over 18 years old is about 77,000.
Turnouts for local elections are consistently lower than state and national elections, despite the immediacy of local affairs, Hanmer said.
“Local elections are where, that’s where people have most of their potential power to affect their day-to-day lives,” said Hanmer, a professor of political science. “That’s my every day. That’s my safety, that’s my kid’s safety.”
He said political scientists have not developed a consensus threshold number for what defines “low” turnout, but he said “from my perspective it’s frustrating. We could do more in our communities. We could have a healthier democracy if people did participate more.”
He said research shows that voting is habit-forming, and that regular voting can create a “virtuous cycle” of participating in community civic life beyond casting a ballot.
Political science research also supports Councilor Carney’s remark about term limits and voter turnout.
In a paper on local elections published in 2013, political scientist Jessica Trounstine, now of Vanderbilt University, argued that evidence shows that conditions that create low turnouts “increase the proportion of city council incumbents who run for re-election and the proportion who win.”
Trounstine pointed to a few factors contributing to what she called “low-turnout environments.” These include requiring registration at least a month before elections, not mailing notice to voters of their poll locations, and holding local elections in years that do not coincide with state or national elections.
The explanation for slumping turnouts of the last few decades is hardly clear, Hanmer said.
DeBrito said he thinks a general lack of trust in government could be part of the reason, especially in light of persistent, and unproven, allegations of significant voting system improprieties, fraud and partisan “rigging” that have emerged as a refrain during election season. Mayor Mitchell has said he thinks diminishing local news coverage in New Bedford has depressed voter engagement in public affairs.
As Mitchell points to a lack of local news, Ward 3 City Councilor Shawn Oliver wonders about the effect of too much information, particularly via social media.
“Now, with the advantage or disadvantage of social media, we are so inundated with information it’s easy to forget there’s an election,” Oliver said.
He said one constituent, a city employee, contacted him on Facebook just a few days ago asking him a question Oliver found striking: who was running in this year’s election and for what offices?
“I was beside myself,” he said. “How do we as a society get so disconnected from what’s going on?”
If there is any pattern to be found over time in American voting behavior, it is that participation correlates with age, education and wealth. Political science research for a century has consistently found that the older, more educated and affluent you are, the more likely you are to vote, especially in the United States.
Hanmer pointed to the continuing relevance of the American Political Science Association presidential address of 1996 delivered by Arend Lijphart, focusing on “unequal participation.” In his opening, Lijphart said “the inequality of representation and influence are not randomly distributed but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens — those with higher incomes, greater wealth and better education — and against less advantaged citizens.”
The pattern plays out in election returns in New Bedford’s wards. The wards that consistently vote most are the more affluent, and also older.
Between 2009 and 2021, Ward 5 — located west and south of downtown with some of the city’s most valuable homes — finished first in turnout in six of seven final elections.
In 2011, with two Ward 5 residents, Mitchell and State Rep. Cabral, in a competitive mayor’s race, the ward reached its highest turnout figure for that period, 46%. The lowest Ward 5 turnout for that period was 16% in 2021, the year of no mayor’s race. That was still enough to top the city’s six wards. The next closest that year was Ward 6, in the South End, at just over 14%.
Ward 1, the city’s northernmost district where voters consistently turnout in strong numbers, topped Ward 5 in 2015, but barely: 28.6% to 27.5%.
Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey, facing a competitive rematch this year with challenger Leo Choquette, a member of the city Zoning Board of Appeals, said the ward has a significant population of longtime homeowners, and older residents.
“It’s an older community, to some degree,” said Markey. “They’re involved in their city and they vote.”
Voters turned out in the smallest numbers consistently for that period in Ward 2, in the North End, which tallied the lowest turnout in four of seven final elections. Close behind was Ward 3, straddling the center of the city, where voters scored the lowest turnouts in three of seven final elections between 2009 and 2021.
Both wards have significant populations of working-class and low-income residents. Ward 2 is also home to many people who have recently arrived in this country, largely from Central America, many who may not be documented and may not be proficient in English.
Councilor Oliver said he ran in the special ward election early this year to fill the vacant seat in Ward 3 because he felt “disconnected from the city.” He wonders how many of his neighbors also feel that way and if that might contribute to low turnout there.
Although he is running unopposed this year, Oliver said he’s continued to knock on doors to keep in touch with people, perhaps meet folks he did not reach during the special election in the winter, and to encourage turnout.
At-large Councilor Shane Burgo said candidates are a big part of any voter turnout effort. He said he’s taken part in one of DeBrito’s civic-engagement events for young people at New Bedford High School early this year, and wonders what is holding back voter participation.
“It’s never been easier than it is today to cast a ballot in New Bedford,” said Burgo. “So what’s the excuse for not voting?”
Ward 2 City Councilor Maria Giesta looks at the advent of mail-in balloting and three days of in-person early voting and has the same question. She’s running unopposed this year, but nonetheless she’s been busy in the days before Nov. 7 calling voters to remind them to vote, and to ask for their support. She said she’s probably been making a couple hundred calls a day.
The low turnout is “upsetting,” Giesta said. “You have the ability to make change, and you don’t.”
Giesta, who came to this country with her family from the Azores when she was 3, said her family was hardly affluent, but once her parents became citizens they always voted. She knows that low voting is associated with low income, but she does not accept that as an excuse not to vote.
Like Burgo, Oliver and other council members, she applauds DeBrito’s efforts and said she intends to meet with him after the election to talk about what more could be done.
The city and state have already done a few of the things that political scientists argue make voting easier. Since January, voter registration now is automatic with any update of information with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. New Bedford allows new registrations until Oct. 27, offers mail-in balloting and three days of in-person early voting for each of the two elections, preliminary and final.
Research shows compulsory voting to be one of the most effective ways to drive turnout, even though penalties for not showing up at the polls are minimal and loosely enforced in countries that have it. According to the Lijphart remarks, research showed compulsory voting raised turnout between 7% and 16%.
No one in New Bedford is talking about compulsory voting, which is something of a misnomer in any case. As the ballot itself is private, a voter can be compelled only to show up, perhaps cast a blank, but not fill out the ballot.
DeBrito said voters get notice of their polling place location by mail when they are first registered, and if their polling place changes. Otherwise, the information is posted to the Election Commission website.
DeBrito this year has stationed at big intersections nine lighted highway signs — more than double the usual number — announcing the election date and poll hours.
A longtime youth sports coach in New Bedford, DeBrito is also trying to act as a Pied Piper of civic life to young people in the city.
At two middle schools and four elementary schools, DeBrito this year has delivered an introduction to local civics, and a brochure challenging students to answer six basic questions about local government, including the name of the mayor, their ward number and councilor. Students get points for correct answers, and for getting their parents or guardians to vote, and affix their “I Voted” sticker to the brochure. DeBrito said the brochures will be collected after the election, the points totaled, and a prize — perhaps a pizza party — awarded to the winning school.
Older students are being recruited to work for $15 an hour at the polls on Election Day.
At the New Bedford Public Library main branch on a rainy Saturday last month, DeBrito went over the details with about 20 students from four high schools: New Bedford High, Bishop Stang, Nazarene Christian Academy and Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical.
Keyanna Jones, a senior at New Bedford High and co-chair of the Mayor’s Youth Council, said she worked the poll last year at the Alma del Mar Charter School in Ward 2. She said she helped voters sign in, and feed their ballots into the machine.
“I was really passionate about youth engagement,” she said, when asked why she volunteered for this program. “Engagement, I think, is the root of fixing issues you think are going on in your community.”
Jack DiMatteo, also a senior at New Bedford High, said his experience of campaigning with his uncle, state Rep. Chris Hendricks, got him interested in politics. He’s not sure why people are not voting, other than plain inertia.
“I think it’s just people don’t want to get out,” he said. “People make excuses.”
His fellow New Bedford High senior, Madison Rodrigues, sees voting as a basic obligation: “It’s your town, it’s your city. You should be the one to decide who’s elected.
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