Jamaica Plain’s voters stayed home in droves for the Nov. 6 city election, with turnout at the polls plunging to its lowest levels in at least four years.
With JP turnout at about 13 percent, it didn’t matter that at-large City Councilor Felix Arroyo—a JP resident—topped the local ticket. He lost citywide in an election where West Roxbury’s voter turnout was almost twice that of JP’s.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the turnout,” said Jesús Gerena, an organizer with the local Coalition to Educate, Mobilize and Vote (CEMV). CEMV is a team-up of the Hyde Square Task Force and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation that works to boost voting in JP’s low-turnout areas.
“I do understand that many people feel like it was a step back,” Gerena said, adding that he sees the low turnout as an opportunity to pinpoint problems with voter engagement.
Turnout fell victim to a perfect storm of negative influences: bad weather, uncontested district races, a canceled preliminary election and scant coverage by the city’s biggest media outlets.
“Not having a preliminary definitely did not help us,” Gerena said. “People are smart. They didn’t see a race.”
JP’s turnout was slightly below the citywide average of 13.6 percent—the first time in five major elections in four years that JP turnout was below average.
Last year’s JP turnout was 61 percent—in an election that included a new governor and a hot local state Senate race. In 2005, JP turnout was 41 percent with the Mayor’s Office and a contested district City Council seat on the ballot. In the 2004 preliminary election that put local resident Andrea Cabral into the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, JP turnout was about 19 percent. In the hotly contested 2003 city election, JP turnout was near the city average of 25 percent.
Clearly, turnout goes hand-in-hand with contested elections and high-profile offices. Gerena said CEMV is considering more “leadership development” programs to generate candidates for office.
As usual, JP turnout this year varied by sub-neighborhoods. In Ward 10 (Hyde/Jackson Squares), it was about 8 percent. In Ward 11 (central/eastern JP) it was about 13 percent. In Ward 19 (Pondside/Jamaica Hills), it was about 17 percent.
The turnout roughly parallels higher average incomes in the sub-neighborhoods. Likewise, turnout was generally low in majority-minority precincts. And the drop in such areas was notable. One example Genera noted was Ward 10 Precinct 6, which had 22 percent turnout in 2003, but only about 8 percent this year.
The loss by Arroyo—the city’s first and only Latino city councilor—and the win by John Connolly, a West Roxbury resident who is white, has led some analysts to conclude there was a major demographic shift in voting.
However, voting was depressed citywide, and there appear to be other factors involved. West Roxbury, which led the city in turnout, is heavily white and relatively high-income. But it is also heavily populated by city workers who naturally pay close attention to elections.
Connolly had the advantage of being the neighborhood guy in that area, and campaigned heavily from a large war chest. Arroyo raised virtually no money and had little visibility in the quiet race.
In an at-large City Council race, the top four vote-getters win seats. This year, the citywide winners were, in order, Michael Flaherty, Steve Murphy, Sam Yoon and Connolly. Arroyo finished fifth. All five candidates finished with relatively similar vote totals.
If JP had decided the election, the results would have been very different. Locally, Arroyo and Yoon by far led the pack, with 26 and 25 percent of the votes, respectively. They were followed by Murphy and Flaherty, each with roughly 14 percent of the votes. Connolly finished fifth in JP with about 11 percent.
The high percentages and large numbers of blanked votes indicate that many JP voters were “bullet voting”—voting only for Arroyo and Yoon, rather than using all four of their votes.
JP has been a hotspot in recent elections, including memorable candidate forums, voting rights complaints and hotly contested races. This year, JP seemed to sleepwalk through the election.
Virtually the only campaign activity was that of CEMV, which held JP’s only candidate forum; registered 40 new voters; and directly contacted about 1,400 infrequent voters through such methods as door-knocking. Those efforts will continue next year, which promises to confuse voters with new presidential primary dates, Gerena said.
The local races for district City Council seats were even quieter, but the results still show some interesting trends.
John Tobin, the incumbent in JP’s main District 6 council seat, ran unopposed for the first time. Fighting only a blank spot on the ballot, he did relatively well. District-wide, he drew about 5,900 votes—more than half of his vote total in his strongly contested 2005 race. And while Tobin, a West Roxbury resident, counts on that neighborhood as his base of support, about a third of the votes came from JP.
On the other hand, Tobin was still frequently blanked, with about 38 percent of JP’s district voters stiffing him at the polls.
In District 7, which includes part of Egleston Square, incumbent Chuck Turner handily beat challenger Carlos Henriquez with 81 percent of the vote. But it was a closer race in Egleston Square, where Turner drew 65 percent of the vote. The amount of blanked ballots was fairly low, indicating voter interest in the race despite its low profile.
District 8 City Councilor Mike Ross drew 102 votes in his large Hyde Square precinct. The blank ballot rate was high there.
Undaunted by the low turnout, local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez continued his tradition of handing out surveys to voters at several JP polls. The survey asks residents for their opinions on hot-button issues.
The three big issues this year are gambling casinos; tax increases (especially to fund transportation infrastructure fixes); and English Language Learning programs in schools. Residents can comment on other issues as well.
Residents who missed Sánchez at the polls can get a copy of the survey by e-mailing him at Rep.JeffreySanchez@hou.state.ma.us.