Predominantly White wards continue to vote at two-to-three times the rate of predominantly minority wards, reflecting severe and chronic voter participation disparities in Springfield, Massachusetts, according to a new analysis from The Springfield Institute. Overall, a dismal 18% of voting age residents in Springfield voted in the general election on November 8, 2011 where, for the first time in the city’s history, a Latino candidate for mayor was on the ballot. Several city council seats were also being contested. The overall participation rate of 18% would have been even lower without Ward 7, which has the lowest percentage of minority residents (31%), bringing up the average with a 28% participation rate. In Wards 1, 3, and 4–which are 88%, 83%, and 84% minority respectively–turnout was 15%, 9%, and 12% respectively.
WHY IT MATTERS
Severe and chronic voter participation disparities directly correspond to other severely disparate outcomes in the city in the areas of leadership, school performance, student achievement, health and the environment, employment, and incarceration. Reducing voter participation disparities, and in effect making democracy a reality in Springfield, may be a prerequisite for reducing disparities and inequality in these other areas.
What causes low turnout and voter participation disparities? Some point out that voter participation in Puerto Rico can be as high as 90%. The media and others frequently attribute low turnout to apathy, implying that blame lies with residents who are neglecting their civic duty and simply don’t care. (Occasionally it is also mentioned that politicians don’t inspire residents, which is certainly part of the explanation.) But the situation is much more complex, and many of the barriers to voting that go unmentioned effect some groups more than others. The day after the election, the Springfield Elections Commissioner was quoted in The Republican saying she was disappointed, but unsure how to explain the low voter turnout. Here is a list of important and overlooked explanations:
Poor media coverage. At least partially due to resource limitations that all media outlets are struggling with, coverage of the election, the candidates, the issues, the importance of voting, how to vote, and voters rights was very limited. After all, that’s a fundamental reason the Springfield Institute was created!
No incentive at city hall. The mayor declined all debate invitations from media outlets during the two weeks leading up to the election, citing his focus on the recent snow storm. The October 29th snowstorm, and the June 1st tornado gave the incumbent more than enough positive exposure, making campaigning per se unnecessary. And since increasing voter turnout and reducing participation disparities would necessarily favor his opponent, there was no incentive to work on these problems. As a result, the election did not get much attention.
Weather. The October 29th snowstorm also left thousands of residents without power for up to a week, and school was cancelled for more than a week. When power was eventually restored and school resumed, voting became an even lower priority for many residents trying to return to their normal routines.
Voting rights violations. The US Department of Justice sued the City of Springfield in 2006 for voting rights violations against minority voters. The DOJ returned to Springfield on November 8th at the request of City Councilor Zaida Luna, the NAACP, the ACLU, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. The DOJ sent a small team to monitor the general election, investigate allegations of violations during the preliminary election (September 20th), and investigate allegations of widespread noncompliance with the settlement order that resulted from their intervention in 2006. Their findings will not be issued until at least January 2012. Violations observed include: polling places not opening on time, no bilingual poll workers at some polling places, city hall providing inaccurate poll hours, voters being systematically denied provisional ballots when problems arise, ID being required when it should not be, and in at least one case, a voter being handed a ballot with the incumbent’s name already checked off (click right to see actual pre-marked ballot). More background here.
Administrative errors at city hall. In addition to the violations referenced above, there is at least one critical error in the official election results provided by city hall (4MB PDF). The number of registered voters listed at each precinct does not add up the total number of registered voters given on the cover/summary page. What appears to be the correct number (94,802) is larger than the official total (93,539). The mathematical result is that voter turnout is slightly less than what was reported by city hall.
Incarceration trends. According to a Pew study, “Between 1987 and 2007, the national prison population has nearly tripled.” Nationally, one in every nine Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. One result is a decreased population of eligible voters, and in some cases, participation rates that are “grossly overstated” because they are based on an artificially reduced base number (Source: University of Washington, download study here).
Overall turnout declines. While voter participation rates remain extremely low in predominantly non-White wards, disparities may have declined slightly in recent years in Springfield simply because voter participation in predominantly White wards is also declining.
The high profile race between Scott Brown and Martha Coakley in 2010 seemed to have led to an uptick in voter participation in predominantly White wards, but not elsewhere. (This may be part of why Brown won.)
Not a cross section of Puerto Ricans. One theory about why Puerto Ricans don’t vote in Springfield but they do in Puerto Rico is that the Puerto Ricans in Springfield are not a representative sample. According to this theory, Springfield Puerto Ricans would be less likely to vote in Puerto Rico as well.
Many of these factors effect non-White populations more 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).
% minority and voting age numbers for each ward and the city overall are based on the 2010 Census. Now that this data is available, analyses that have already been completed for 2007, 2009, and 2010 have been revised for this analysis.
The City of Springfield and several media outlets define voter participation as the percentage of registered voters that cast ballots. We tend to report this percentage as well as the percentage of voting age residents who cast ballots. The rationale is that we want to know how many eligible voters vote. For the same reasons that many people do not vote, many people also do not register to vote. Particularly in minority communities. For practical reasons, the longitudinal analysis chart (2007-2011) above only includes percentages based on voting age, but you can get the percentages based on registered voters here.
One of the most difficult parts of this kind of analysis is matching up ward boundaries (detailed map) with census tract boundaries (census map #1, census map #2) in order to cross reference election results data and demographic data. Now that that work is done, it is our privilege to be able to make that data easily available here (Excel file). Increasing the analytic capacity of grassroots change makers (and others) is another fundamental purpose of SI. Hopefully this data will enable new and provocative analysis.
By the same token, we’d also like to provide our full data sets on which our analysis was based in order to verify our work, expand it, or create a model for future work.
According to the 2010 Census, Springfield is now a majority minority city (63% non-White). This is a big deal, but I have not seen the numbers until now. We are happy to provide them here.
FURTHER RESEARCH AND ANALYSIS
Ideas for further research include comparing this data to Holyoke to see if the data supports the popular notion that Holyoke is going in the opposite direction according to some indicators (e.g., participation, disparities).
Inequality in Springfield sometimes makes it seem as though the civil rights movement never happened. But of course it did. And 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.
The author of this report, Aron Goldman, was a volunteer for José Tosado’s mayoral campaign with the title, Chief Strategist.
Media clip: “Where Were They on Election Day?: Apathy is too simple a way of explaining why 78 percent of Springfield voters didn’t make it to the polls in November,” Maureen Turner, The Valley Advocate, 12/8/11
Related clip: “DOJ Begins ‘Thorough’ Review of New Voting Laws,” Wall Street Journal Law Blog, 12/14/11