Every year on the day after Election Day, after I've pored over the various candidates' totals, I grimly turn to the voter turnout figures. It's like pressing a bruise to see if it still hurts: I know I'm going to be annoyed by the numbers, but still I do it.
Voter participation in Springfield is, in a word, dismal. Over the past five years, the percentage of registered voters who turn out at the polls has hovered between 22 and 35, with municipal elections drawing the lowest numbers and statewide races drawing the highest. The one notable exception: in 2008, 60 percent of voters came out for the presidential election.
So I wasn't especially surprised by the most recent numbers, which showed just 22 percent of voters casting ballots in last month's municipal election. But I still winced as I pressed that bruise.
While every election, I'd argue, is an important one for the city, this one had some particular distinctions: the mayor's race pitted two-term incumbent Domenic Sarno against City Council president Jose Tosado, who would be the first nonwhite mayor in a city with a minority-majority population. The winner of that race would be the first to serve for four years instead of two, after voters decided in 2009 to double the length of the mayoral term.
On the City Council side, while there were appallingly few contested ward races, there was a long, if not particularly deep, list of at-large candidates. The election also offered voters an opportunity to voice their positions on any number of important issues in the city—say, the wood-burning power plant proposed for East Springfield—by backing those candidates who share their views.
Instead, 78 percent of the city's voters opted not to weigh in at all. "What's wrong with people?" I found myself grumbling to my colleagues and anyone else I could get to listen to my grumblings. Like so many post-industrial urban areas, Springfield is in a perpetually vulnerable position, struggling with the kinds of social and economic ills that can easily tip a city into disaster with the wrong leadership and management—as not-too-distant history shows.
And, as I've learned from years of covering the city, Springfield residents are certainly not without opinions. So why aren't they bringing those opinions to the ballot box, where they might yield some tangible results?
Aron Goldman would urge me—and, indeed, anyone feeling that same reflexive frustration with Springfield voters—to step back and take a broader view. Recently, Goldman, executive director of the Springfield Institute, released an analysis of the Nov. 8 voter participation figures, with a particular focus on the differences between largely minority neighborhoods and largely white ones. (Goldman worked as a strategist on Tosado's campaign, a fact he discloses in the Springfield Institute report.) As he wrote in the report, "Predominantly White wards continue to vote at two-to-three times the rate of predominantly minority wards, reflecting severe and chronic voter participation disparities."
But to attribute those disparities to mere apathy among minority voters—or, rather, non-voters—is facile; rather, Goldman argues, there's a more complex set of issues at play, whose consequences reach beyond the election results.
The Springfield Institute report starts with voting figures from four of the city's eight wards: Wards 1, 3 and 4, all of which have populations that are at least 83 percent minority, and Ward 7, the city's whitest neighborhood, with 31 percent minority residents.
A series of bar graphs makes the racial disparities clear. In the heavily minority wards, the numbers of registered voters who cast ballots are strikingly low: 16 percent in Ward 1, 11 percent in Ward 3, 17 percent on Ward 4. In contrast, Ward 7 saw 34 percent of its registered voters cast ballots. (Indeed, Ward 7, with its history of posting the highest voter turnout rates in the city, is a highly coveted political prize for candidates—not to mention the neighborhood that many successful candidates call home.)
Ward 7, Goldman noted in a recent interview, "is an aberration. It's like three wards in one." Without that comparatively high turnout in Ward 7, the city's overall participation rate of 22 percent would have been even lower.
Given those race-based disparities, attributing low turnout to voter apathy becomes especially loaded, raising the specter of lazy people of color who "can't be bothered" to participate in elections. Of course, Goldman pointed out, there's nothing new about this tendency to dismiss Latinos and African-Americans as lazy. Consider, for instance, the stereotype of the shiftless, benefits-sucking—and, invariably, brown-skinned—"welfare queen," a notion popularized during the Reagan era and reinforced by the welfare reform laws of Bill Clinton, which relied heavily on the language of "personal responsibility," he said.
"It really is a pernicious, vicious ideology, about blaming poor people for their situation and, by extension, blaming people of color," Goldman said. "This mind frame is so pervasive and dominant [that it] makes it hard to see alternative ways to look at it."
But in the same way that economic inequalities can't be explained away as the result of personal laziness, the causes of race-based voting disparities are more complex than just individual apathy, Goldman contends: "Without absolving people of their personal responsibility, there are a bunch of additional explanations we're trying to put out there."
Among those possible explanations, according to the Springfield Institute analysis, was sparse media coverage, both of the races and issues and of "the importance of voting, how to vote, and voters' rights." The report also points to the early snowstorm that hit the city on Oct. 29, leaving many residents without power for a week or more and causing the city schools to shut down for six days.
"Obstacles & like the weather have a very different kind of impact on poor people and communities of color," Goldman said. "If everything's great and stable, and you've got everything covered— you've got childcare, you've got two cars, your polling place is a really inviting and well-run place where you get cookies afterward—[if] you throw one wrench into that, you can still deal with it." But for families already struggling to find adequate childcare or transportation, for instance, something like a storm can create insurmountable barriers to voting.
"Many of these factors [that make getting to the polls difficult] affect non-White populations more," he wrote in the report, "because these populations are more likely to be financially unstable; more likely to have citizenship concerns; more likely to have recently changed their address; less likely to speak English; less likely to have transportation to go to additional polling places when poll workers refer them; less likely to be well-educated and informed about the candidates, how to vote, and voter rights; and less likely to have completed the 2010 Census (which bumps a voter to an 'inactive list' and triggers additional barriers)."
The SI report also cites a significant political development that may have contributed to low turnout: Sarno's announcement in the wake of the snowstorm that he would suspend all campaign events—including skipping several planned candidates' debates—to deal with the storm fallout. That move minimized the amount of media coverage of the race in the crucial last days leading up to the election; it did not, however, limit media coverage of the incumbent Sarno, who held multiple press conferences during that time to discuss the city's relief efforts and to scold Western Mass. Electric for the delay in restoring power to Springfield residents.
On Nov. 8, Sarno handily beat Tosado, with 72 percent of the vote. "The mayor made a shrewd calculation that voter turnout would not benefit him. He was absolutely right," said Goldman.
In addition, Goldman said, voting rights violations at the polls resulted in eligible voters being turned away. In 2006, the city was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating the rights of minority voters; the case was resolved with a consent decree under which the city agreed to hire more bilingual poll workers and provide election materials in Spanish, among other things. DOJ staff returned to the city to observe the Nov. 8 election, after receiving separate complaints about the Sept. 20 preliminary election from the Springfield branch of the NAACP and from Ward 1 City Councilor Zaida Luna. The complaints alleged violations including polls not opening on time, poll workers asking for IDs from voters who were not legally required to provide them, and voters being denied provisional ballots when they were eligible for them. The majority of the problems, the complaints said, took place in wards with large minority populations.
Despite the Justice Department presence at the general election, Goldman said, the problems continued, with voters once again being turned away. A DOJ report on the election is pending.
"I don't think there's a conspiracy to keep minorities at home [on Election Day], although who knows?" Goldman said.
But whether it's deliberate or the result of incompetence, he added, voters of color are still finding barriers at the polls.
To some people, Goldman said, race-based voting disparities might not seem as pressing, or as concrete, as the other kinds of disparities in the city: in student performance, employment levels, public health, incarceration rates.
But, he said, "It's noteworthy, or uncanny, that the people who are not voting suffer more in these areas. The terrible schools are in the high minority areas where people don't vote." Unemployment is highest in those neighborhoods. So is the percentage of people who end up behind bars.
"It only makes sense that if voter participation was more even throughout the city, so would the strengths and assets & be more evenly distributed throughout the city— even though those strength and assets are modest," Goldman said.
Goldman hopes his analysis will inspire people working on those other problems to consider the connection to voter engagement. "It may be the only way we're going to move the needle in these other issues is to deal with the fundamental lack of engagement," he said.
Addressing low turnout among voters of color is more complex now than it was in the past; as Goldman writes in his analysis, "the explicit institutional discrimination is largely gone. But therein lies our challenge.
"The only way to reduce severe inequality is to take a deeper look at the laws, procedures, and structural features of the city in order to understand the inadvertent ways in which they have led to circumstances that are antithetical to our aspirations as a society. Rather than blame voter participation disparities on already marginalized populations (by calling them apathetic, for example), we must use a deeper understanding of the barriers that some groups face to develop creative and proactive solutions. Once you make the conceptual leap, opportunities to make a difference are everywhere."