Friday, September 14, 2007

State Senate Race: Ballots Cast By 6% of Allston-Brighton, 15% of Charlestown Registered Voters

In last Tuesday's special election for the State Senate seat vacated by Jarrett Barrios, only the northwestern-most region of Allston-Brighton (basically Allston but not Brighton) lay within the district and went to the polls. Also voting were portions of Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Revere, Saugus, Chelsea, and the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston.

Between Charlestown and Allston-Brighton, 2176 of 19,502 registered voters cast a ballot, or 11.16%, according to the Boston Elections Department. But in just Allston-Brighton, 524 of 8156 registered voters in those six precincts cast ballots, just 6.4%, according to information collected by the Allston-Brighton TAB from the Boston Elections Department. That means 1652 of 11,346 registered voters in Charlestown voted, or 14.6%.

Why did Allston-Brighton registered voters show up at the polls at less than half the rate of Charlestown voters?

Some speculated on low voter turnout due to the bad weather that day... but there weren't thunderstorms in Allston alongside sunny skies in Charlestown.

Harry Mattison, who lives in Allston in the Senate district (unlike me over here in Brighton), wrote that Tim Flaherty visited Allston for a house party once to his knowledge, and the other candidates didn't at all. Ouch. I didn't personally see former Senator Barrios at any events in Allston in the last year -- but my attendance in Allston ain't all that good, either, so I could've missed his appearances. People just weren't excited about a race where the candidates and former elected official stay out of town. I didn't cover the race because the election district barely skirts one corner of Brighton. And I've never seen any of the four candidates around town.

An alternative explanation that I find more likely for the low voter turnout is a structural one. It is related to the transient nature of the households in Allston-Brighton, which includes the middle class flight to the suburbs. Here, I think that U.S. Census data can provide us with some insight, comparing the average length of time each household has been at a particular address between Allston and Charlestown. The 2000 census reported that 45.8% of Allston-Brighton households moved into their March 2000 address after January 1, 1999, while only 26.2% of Charlestown households did. That is one whopping difference between the two neighborhoods!

When people move, they may lose their voter registration. According to the League of Women's Voters's website:
9. I am registered, but I've recently moved. Does this affect my registration?

Yes. If you are registered and have moved within your current election jurisdiction, contact your local election office to update your registration and determine where you should vote. If you moved outside of your old election jurisdiction, you will have to reregister in your new jurisdiction before the registration deadline in your state.
But since everybody moves on August 31 -- right before September primary or preliminary elections -- most are still registered voters on the voting rolls for their old address (they haven't yet been purged), even though they don't live there anymore. As long as they moved within the same city or town, they may still be legally allowed to vote, but they may not realize that. They may not know their new polling location; if they show up at the old one they may be challenged, etc. (Cases like this were to be addressed by the provisional ballot system.)

How many people re-register to vote within a few days after moving in? Very few. I've gotten whacked by this myself when I was young, and I'm sure a lot of the "transient," young population living in A-B are similarly affected every year. An enterprising reporter could probably dig up some people to quote in less than an hour. A few questions posed to the Secretary of the Commonwealth's office might offer the scenario of how elections officials respond on election day to a changed address, and how often this has occurred in recent elections.

People who move, but realize they haven't updated their voter registration, are likely not to show up at the polls at all. This problem of low voter turnout in Allston-Brighton could very well be a structural one -- hidden below the surface -- a sad result of the low rate of family and long-term households in our neighborhood.

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