To Joe Lynch, it’s simple: Don’t vote? Don’t complain!
He always votes. He loves complaining.
“Most of the decisions made in my personal life are made on where I work, live, play, pay taxes, get food, travel across the streets, and where my safety is guarded,” said Lynch, who is quite an active community member as Somerville Media Center Board President and Chair of the Licensing Commission. “National elections are 200 million other voters who may have nothing in common with you. You can actually affect the way you live day-to-day with municipal voting.”
Voter turnout in municipal elections is consistently much lower than in state and federal elections. This is true across the board, and Somerville is no exception. The 2017 municipal election saw the highest ever voter participation in a local election, with 16,267 of Somerville’s 51,378 voters casting their ballots (a 31.67 percent participation rate).
However, when compared to Somerville’s regionally high participation rate of 75 percent in the 2016 federal election and 65 percent in the 2018 midterms, it’s clear where residents feel their vote makes a difference.
Of course, there are other factors at play here. Somerville’s Clean and Open Elections Taskforce, convened in August 2018, put together a comprehensive report (which includes the above graph) that studied voter turnout and recommended strategies to increase voter participation.
“It's hard to attribute lower turnout in municipal elections to any one cause, but one potential explanation is simply that Americans have opportunities to cast ballots for a range of elected offices over the course of the year,” said task force member Josh Rosmarin. “People are busy, and it can simply be hard to keep up when voters are constantly being asked to come to the polls. One solution that the task force believes would be key to solving this problem would be to consolidate election timelines so that municipal elections are aligned with state and federal elections, where many more voters are already engaged and likely to cast a ballot.”
Rosmarin works for the Analyst Institute, a consulting and research organization that does experiments to find ways to increase voter turnout, and leads a research team that with a focus on voter registration. Working on the task force, he also found that Somerville’s municipal turnout trends are similar to those in nearly communities. In fact, low turnout in municipal elections is an issue nationwide.
“The voters who are less likely to vote in municipal elections are typically those who are historically marginalized from public life: communities of color and young people in particular,” he said. “Lower voter turnout in municipal elections means that those voices continue to not be recognized in local government. Increased turnout in municipal elections helps to ensure equal representation among all residents of Somerville, which in turn means that elected officials are accountable to everyone in the community.”
The turnout in Somerville’s 2017 municipal election was historically quite high at 31 percent. In 2015, it was only 14 percent, and 22 percent in 2013. With competitive mayoral and councilor-at-large races, though without any ward councilors facing challenges, who knows what 2019 will bring?
Lynch thinks the city needs to find a way to get people more interested in their local elections.
“We have to make our municipal elections sexy again,” he said. “Everyone loves the big presidential campaigns – we see it on TV, and we live vicariously through our national political leaders. So, you have to give people a reason to tune in. At the municipal level we talk about mundane and boring things, but this is your town: you have control over it, and if you don’t like it, you can change the people in charge.”
The last day to register to vote in Somerville’s Nov. 5 municipal election is Oct. 16.