Commentary: Voters who vote now get their chance to help steer the city toward its future

Bill Walczak

It’s coming down to the wire for Boston’s preliminary election, though absentee and early voting are now in effect. It is called a “preliminary” election, rather than a primary, because it is non-partisan, which means that a candidacy is determined by getting 3,000 valid signatures from Boston voters for a spot on the ballot, as opposed to a primary, in which candidates run against each other by political party, such as in state and federal elections, and the winners face each other in the general election.

The preliminary election will winnow down the seven candidates for mayor to two final candidates, the 17 candidates for city council-at large to eight, and the district city council candidates to two final candidates per district.

In November, we will vote for one candidate for mayor, four for city council at-large, and one district councillor, and the candidates with the highest number of votes in each category will become mayor or city councillor.

The five top mayoral candidates will be spending whatever money they have left on television and social media advertising, strengthening get-out-the-vote operations through door knocking, texting and telephoning, to which we can add Super PAC (Political Action Committee) dollars supporting each candidate. It will be virtually impossible to avoid hearing about the election between now and the 14th.

Political pundits are excited that the election looks close, with Michelle Wu solidly in first place in all polls, and three candidates — Kim Janey, Annissa Essaibi George, and Andrea Campbell— all close enough to win second place, which would punch their ticket to the November general election.

The pundits are making their predictions on who gets second place based on how many registered voters actually vote. As a result, most are saying that any of the three could win second place.

The general perspective is that a low turnout election (fewer than a third of registered voters casting a vote) will favor the candidate who favors the least change, which is generally seen to be Annissa Essaibi George.

The Boston Globe’s editorial board said last week that “Essaibi George enjoys the tacit support of police unions, but bristles at the suggestion that she’s the status-quo candidate in the race; if she makes the final, she will need to convince voters why that label is as unfair as she says it is.”

Low turnout voters are defined as people who always vote, who are generally older, white, middle class homeowners, and more likely to be police or other government employees. Recent Boston preliminary elections for mayor have typically been low turnout, with recent election vote tallies ranging from 55,791 in 2017 to 113,319 in 2013.

Observers say that high turnout elections often lead to more change, as these voters are not necessarily wed to the status quo. On Sept. 3, the Globe endorsed Campbell for mayor, describing her this way: “She radiates a sense of urgency, a palpable hunger to confront Boston’s hardest, most politically fraught challenges.”

In the modern era, the highest turnout for a preliminary election was in 1983, where an open seat for mayor and the transformation from an at large city council to a hybrid system of 4 at large and 9 district city councilors resulted in 166,716 voters casting ballots. This occurred despite the city’s population being nearly 20 percent lower than today’s Boston.

The future of the city is on the line, from management of basic services to whether our schools improve, to how we handle Covid and global warming, and how development happens in our neighborhoods. Boston is blessed with a robust economy that has produced tax revenue capable of solving many of our problems. What it needs is the leadership to make it happen.

Based on past preliminary mayoral races, each voter who casts a vote will be representing at least two other registered voters who skip voting. That’s a big responsibility. So what will it be, Boston? The city’s future is in your hands.

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident who ran for mayor in 2013. He has publicly endorsed Andrea Campbell for Mayor.

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