Taber Mills used to be one of the few hot spots of voting in the triple-decker neighborhoods of New Bedford.
“It used to be guaranteed 100 (voters) right off the top,” said Scott Alves, a New Bedford police officer who explained that for many elections he has worked the North End polling station, located in the massive mill-turned-apartment building just east of the railroad bridge on Purchase Street.
“I would say at least 150 came down to vote,” said Margaret Barboza, who said she has worked the Taber Mills polls for many years.
Not many are voting in the senior citizen/disabled apartments any more though.
Alves and Barboza, along with other election workers in Ward 3 Precinct C, say that Taber Mills’ reputation as a good polling location has collapsed since 2021 when the 200-odd residents of the apartment complex were removed from the two precincts that actually vote in their own building.
It’s all the result of the redistricting process after the 2020 federal Census.
The city drew up a redistricting plan that would have kept the Taber Mills building at the heart of Ward 3 Precinct C, but the state — which because of the COVID pandemic had for the first time conducted its redistricting process ahead of Massachusetts municipalities — drew up a different plan. That plan, largely designed to create New Bedford’s first minority-majority district, was required by the state’s election law and done at the threat of a civil rights suit. But it put the Taber Mills complex in a whole new precinct. And that precinct votes eight or nine blocks away from the building where Taber Mills’ elderly and disabled voters live.
Election Commissioner Manny DeBrito said the city had no choice but to go along with the state’s boundaries, or create as many as 13 new sub-precincts that would have caused chaos and confusion for scores of city voters and poll workers. So, New Bedford went along with the state’s plan, which transferred the block fully occupied by the Taber Mills structure, to Precinct D — which is mostly centered around the Mt. Pleasant Street Hill and neighborhood around Holy Name church.
Ironically, Precinct D is voting at a polling location outside of the legislative district (Bristol 11) that it is located in.
All of this meant the residents of Taber Mills lost access to the two polling locations in their own building. In real life, it also meant that many residents of Taber Mills with mobility challenges did not vote in the state election last November, and in the two special Ward 3 elections held in January and February of this year. A city-sponsored van to transport the residents in both the January 24 and February 28 special Ward 3 elections went little used.
It’s hard to understand the sense behind the plan that the city and state finally settled on.
Instead of the residents in the single- and multi-family homes in the heart of Precinct D (the neighborhood centered around Holy Name Church), driving down to Taber Mills to vote, the largely non-driving elderly and disabled residents of Taber Mills have to find a way to get up the Holy Family parish center, where Ward 3 Precincts D and E vote.
The bad news is that Taber Mills residents mostly did not find their way.
Building resident Louise Martin said she did not vote in Tuesday’s special election as she was not able to make arrangements in time to get to Holy Family.
“We asked them if they could have a done-over, to try to get it back here and they basically said ‘What goes, goes.’” she said. “I guess they’ve tried to give their input, but I think if they keep having a poor turnout, maybe then things’ll change.”
The last time they held a special election in Ward 3 was 2017 when Hugh Dunn defeated Bethany Fauteaux. At that time, Ward 3 Precinct C had a 7.9% voter turnout. In this year’s special election in Ward 3, between Shawn Oliver and Carmen Amaral, however, the turnout was an astonishingly low 1.06%.
The ward’s boundaries changed somewhat after the 2020 Census, so contrasting the 2017 special election to the 2023 one is not a perfect comparison. But Precinct C was a low-turnout, low-income, multi-family neighborhood then, and it still is now. The big difference between 2017 and 2023 is that the roughly 200-resident Taber Mills building has been moved to Precinct D and its scores of senior citizens and disabled residents can no longer vote in the structure where they live.
Former City Councilor Hugh Dunn represents the Taber Mill block as does state Rep Chris Hendricks. Dunn could not be reached for comment and Hendricks said it is the city’s responsibility to decide where polling locations are placed. He supports bringing 3D to Taber Mills, he said.
“I don’t know why there’s not much political energy around it in the city,” he said.
It’s been frustrating for the residents who have had to witness the residents of their surrounding Ward 3 neighborhood, and the more distant neighborhood of Ward 2 Precinct A being allowed to vote at Taber Mills, while they could not. That precinct does not seem like it should even be voting at Taber Mills anymore as it is not contiguous to Ward 3 Precinct D, where the building is now located. In order to have a polling location, the state law says the precinct must be contiguous.
Ward 3 precinct voting history
2017 Special Election between Hugh Dunn and Beth Fauteaux
Ward 3 Precinct C
Registered Voters: 1365
Ballots Cast: 93
Ward 3 Precinct D
Registered Voters: 1479
Ballots Cast: 117
2023 Special Election between Shawn Oliver and Carmen Amaral
Ward 3 Precinct C
Registered voters: 1420
Ballots Cast: 15
Ward 3 Precinct D
Registered voters: 1712
Ballots Cast: 145
Michelle Rocha, the warden for Precinct 3C, said she has been told the councilor representing the area let them down. “I guess it was up in the Boston area that they did the lines,” she said, and no one showed up on behalf of Taber Mills.
And they wonder why people become cynical about voting.
Even though the city’s original redistricting proposal had left Taber Mills at the center of Precinct C, when it was taken out, the problem landed on the lap of Election Commission Chair Manny DeBrito.
Solving the problem won’t be easy for him.
DeBrito could have transferred Precinct D to Taber Mills, but that would have meant transferring Ward 2 Precinct A, which currently votes in the building, somewhere else. It would also have meant telling the more middle-class residents of parts of Ward 3 Precinct D to travel down to Taber Mills, a lower-income neighborhood, in order to vote.
DeBrito, with the agreement of his fellow commissioners, has the power to do that. But as a practical matter, he said he would need the support of the two city councilors whose wards would be affected by changing precincts.
That would be Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta and Ward 3 Councilor-elect Shawn Oliver.
DeBrito said he has approached both Giesta and Oliver about a possible solution.
Oliver said he’s working with DeBrito. “We are trying to come up with something for the future,” he said.
Giesta did not return my phone call.
Another solution to the problem might involve early voting.
DeBrito is considering a proposal that the city begin holding early voting days in the North End, as well as downtown, and let the whole North End vote at Taber Mills for the early voting period. But DeBrito said that might lead the South End to demand an early voting location, too. And that would mean both additional funding and the even bigger challenge of finding more poll workers for three early-voting spots.
With the Taber Mills vote having collapsed in a section of the city that already struggles with turnout, it’s clear he’s going to have to do something.
From my perspective, it always seems to be the low-income neighborhoods that take it on the chin when it comes to the city’s attention on voting.
For instance, the city’s EMS department, at DeBrito’s instruction, hauled big electronic signs advertising voting at the Bayberry Apartments polling location and on Hathaway Road prior to the vote. Those are middle-class neighborhoods, but as Bob Cabral, one of the Ward 3 preliminary election candidates pointed out, there were no electric signs for the polling locations at the low-income, multi-family neighborhoods of Precincts A, B and C.
DeBrito and Neil Mello, the mayor’s spokesman said the lighting conditions were bad in Precinct F and that polling location is set back from road, but the lighting is certainly just as bad, and the location just as set back at Hayden-McFadden school in Precinct A.
Lorraine Peyton, another longtime resident of Taber Mills, said they are hoping DeBrito and the city can work something out. She said the residents have a lot of faith in DeBrito, whom she described as a “very hard worker.”
Nevertheless, she believes the problem can be solved. “I come from the school where there’s always an exception,” she said.
The Elections Office, of course, is appointed by Mayor Mitchell, and he issued a statement saying he has encouraged the commissioners to have “further discussions with respective ward councilors.”
“Our expectation is that those discussions will include a fresh assessment of all the existing polling locations for precincts in Wards 2 and 3,” wrote public information officer Holly Huntoon.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.