By Chronicle Staff
Wednesday, October 2, 2002
On primary day last week, I served as an election inspector (that guy behind the desk who checks off your name on the voting list). Hence I personally observed what the newspapers called a "light turnout," about 28 percent in Cambridge. I'd like to comment on why turnout was light, and to encourage people to register to vote by the deadline of Oct. 16.
First, it's hard to register. The 28 percent reported voting rate compares to 52 percent in the 2000 general election, where voting is always higher than in primaries. Political commentators in 2000 concurred that 52 percent was too light a turnout, too. But that 52 percent is a misleading figure - it represents the percentage of the eligible population who voted. The percentage of eligible people who actually registered to vote in 2000 was about 62 percent - less than two thirds of the adult population managed to get registered. Of those who did register, about 83 percent actually voted - which sounds a lot better than the universally reported 52 percent.
The problem has much less to do with getting people to vote, than with getting people registered to vote. In many countries, voters can register on the same day as they vote - there's no reason we can't do that here. In fact, in some states, that has been done - most notably in Minnesota, where Jesse Ventura became governor in large part because of voters who turned out for the first time on Election Day in 1998. Party stalwarts in both the Republican and Democratic parties would prefer if only their party insiders vote - because otherwise outsiders like Jesse Ventura get elected. As far as I can tell, that's the main reason why voter registration is made difficult.
We're not going to get same-day voter registration in Massachusetts anytime soon, nor weekend voting, nor a state holiday on Election Day, nor even polls that are open late on voting days. All of those are good ideas, that would make the process easier - which is why the insiders don't want them. All we can do is try to beat them at their own game, by registering despite the difficulties - details on that below.
Second, people don't see the candidates address issues of importance to them. This problem comes about because candidates don't care about groups of people who don't vote. I worked the polls near Rindge Towers, a public housing complex with high immigrant and minority population. Several residents commented that they would support a candidate who just visited their neighborhood, much less knew what issues they cared about. In the neighboring precinct where I voted, a neighborhood dominated by single-family homes and condominiums, the number of voters was more than four times the number in the Rindge Towers neighborhood, with a comparable population. Immigrants and minorities remain as outsiders in a perpetual cycle - they don't vote much, hence the politicians don't care about them, hence the candidates don't address issues of relevance to them, hence they don't vote much.
The way to break that cycle is to register and vote in large numbers. Politicians will pay attention then. The same logic applies to other low-percentage voting groups in Cambridge. Students are ignored in Cambridge politics because they don't vote here - often because students don't realize that they can register to vote in Cambridge. If the city's large student population voted, they would have an enormous impact on issues of direct interest to them - such as the ongoing Harvard Square Redesign and the upcoming Vassar Street bicycle path project.
Third, people think their vote doesn't count much. In fact, the smaller the election, the more your vote does count. Primary contests are won and lost by who "gets out the vote" of their constituents more - for example, Janet Reno just lost her primary for governor in Florida last month by a fewer than 5,000 votes out of a million voters. Winning candidates for Cambridge City Council last year received a total of 1,700 votes. In tight contests (including the 2000 presidential election), and especially in local races, your vote really does count.
Former Mayor Galluccio knows well the "get out the vote" rule - he overwhelmingly received the most votes in the 2001 City Council election. A dozen voters from Rindge Towers asked how to vote for him, specifically, in his hotly contested primary for a state Senate seat. The recent redistricting shifted that neighborhood and several others in Cambridge out of Galluccio's state Senate district, and - partially as a result of not having his strong Cantabrigian constituency - Galluccio lost to Jarrett Barrios by 3,800 votes. That's about the number of eligible but unregistered voters in any two of Cambridge's 33 precincts - their registration and voting could have been decisive.
You have to fill out a voter registration form by Oct. 16 in order to vote in the November election. You can get a voter registration form at any of the following locations:
The form takes five minutes to fill in, and then you mail it back (postmarked by Oct. 16) or bring it to the Cambridge Election Office (by Oct. 16).
I called the Election office last week to ask about distributing voter registration forms. I offered to print labels of all non-registered residents in my neighborhood and stick them on the registration forms and deliver them in person - but I was told those forms would not be valid. In fact, I am not allowed to write your name and address on the form. When I asked why, I was told, "They have to want to register to vote." It's not enough to want to vote - you have to jump through the hoops and register six weeks in advance of the election. The registration system is annoying, and is designed to keep people out - but we can change it, by registering and then voting to change the system in the future.
Jesse Gordon served as an Election Inspector for Ward 11, Precinct 1. If you reside near that neighborhood, he will deliver a voter registration form to you any evening before Oct. 16 - his phone number is 617-320-6989.
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