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Turnout numbers highlight wealth, racial disparities

SHIRA SCHOENBERG


IN THE WEALTHY towns of Dover, Sudbury, and Carlisle, more than 90 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the November election.


In the poorer cities of Springfield, Lawrence, and New Bedford, 55 percent of voters or fewer turned out.


While the presidential election drew record turnout in Massachusetts, voter turnout statistics highlight yet another measure of a tale of two commonwealths, according to a report released Monday by MassVOTE, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation.

Communities that were educated, white, and wealthy saw the largest voter turnout. Communities that were poor, minority, and less educated saw the lowest number of voters. Initiatives like no-excuse voting by mail that were meant to make it easier to vote did not help those disparities, and may have even exacerbated them, since state statistics show that voters in wealthier communities were more likely to take advantage of mail-in voting.


The report looked at the demographic profiles of the 10 communities with the highest voter turnout, of at least 82 percent, and the 10 communities with the lowest turnout, of 69 percent or less.


All of the highest turnout communities – led by Medfield, Dover, Sudbury, Carlisle, and Lexington – had a median income of at least $127,000 and in some cases more than $200,000. In most of the towns, at least 80 percent of residents had graduated high school. With the exception of Lexington, which has a large Asian population, all the communities were at least 75 percent white.


In all but one of the lowest turnout communities – mostly big cities led by Springfield, Lawrence, New Bedford, Chelsea, and Holyoke – the median income was less than $59,000. The one exception was Boston, which has both poor areas and wealthy areas and a median income of $71,000. Except for Boston, none of the low-turnout communities had a college graduation rate higher than 30 percent. In seven of the 10 communities, more than half the population was non-white.


The MassVOTE report argues that the low voter turnout rate in communities of color is a symptom of a larger problem, just like income gaps, public education gaps, and crime rate gaps. “All of them are symptoms of one problem: vast, systemic inequality baked into the foundations of our Commonwealth. Inequality meant to keep Black and brown people, immigrants, and low-income individuals down,” the report says.


There are numerous reasons for the disparities, say voting advocates.


Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager for MassVOTE, who authored the report, said there is some mistrust of the mail in the black community, and mistrust of any new voting system given their past disenfranchisement. He said urban voters are also less likely than suburban voters to have a mailbox at the end of their driveway to put a ballot in.


Ron Bell, who founded Dunk the Vote, a voter turnout organization active in minority communities, said due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was little organizing activity on the ground in the black community either by voter turnout organizations or by candidates.


Bell said people in the black community, where COVID-19 has been particularly prevalent, had other priorities. “There are so many other distractions as far as getting your ballot in,” Bell said. “People were focused on getting to food pantries and putting food on their tables and making sure they social distanced if they could in high density areas. [Voting] wasn’t a priority to a lot of people.” People were also being urged to turn in their Census form at the same time they were being told to vote.


Mail-in voting also had glitches. Bell’s colleague who lives in Roxbury got a primary ballot sent to his apartment before the general election. Bell personally mailed in his application for a mail-in ballot and never received one.


In New Bedford, 35,085 people voted in the 2020 presidential election, compared to 33,608 four years ago. But because the number of registered voters in the city went up, the percentage of registered voters who turned out actually dropped from 58 percent in 2016 to 55 percent in 2020.


Manuel DeBrito, New Bedford’s election commissioner, said mail-in voting was a new phenomenon this year, and the false narrative being perpetrated nationally about fraudulent activity and votes not being counted, “led to a lot of people being uneasy.” President Trump claimed before the election that vote by mail would result in election fraud.

DeBrito said there was also voter apathy. Nationally, he said, “When you’re talking about minorities voting, a lot of it is voter suppression and a lot of it is not thinking that their vote matters.”


Dynamics were different within individual communities. In Springfield, voter turnout hardly changed from 2016 to 2020. Around 800 more people voted for president this year, and the turnout percentage hovered around 53 percent. But Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola said when the numbers are broken down by ward, communities of color actually voted in higher percentages than last time, possibly because of the high number of black and Latino candidates running for office from Springfield. Oyola said in the wealthier parts of Springfield, voter turnout stayed the same or dropped slightly.


Oyola said she could not speak to the comparison between Springfield and other parts of the state, but she thinks vote by mail did boost minority turnout in Springfield, though only 32 percent of Springfield’s voters voted by mail.


In Worcester, which was toward the bottom with 65 percent voter turnout, city clerk Nikolin Vangjeli said the city has 35,000 college students registered to vote, most of whom were not in Worcester because their schools were doing remote learning. There were also few competitive races on the ballot other than the presidential race. Despite that, he said Worcester still had the highest turnout in any election in 40 years.


The MassVOTE report suggests several reforms that the group says could increase voter participation in minority communities: allowing same-day voter registration, expanding in-person early voting, providing free public transit on Election Day, and redrawing precinct lines in Boston so the precincts have equal numbers of residents.


This story originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine. Check it out here.




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