Not with a Bang, but a Whimper

Turnout reaches disparaging levels. Baker, Coakley grossly underperforms.

With the close of another September primary, there was one question that rested on the minds of many- candidates and voters alike- who participated: “where is everybody?” Poll workers from elections past recall when lines of early voters were exactly that, when the workers didn’t outnumber the voters, and when rush hour was more than just a few soccer moms bringing their children in to use the bathrooms before game practice. Citizens are raised to believe in the old moniker of “one man, one vote”, but lately in modern-day Massachusetts, you might find your vote to be worth somewhere closer to that of ten.

Scenes such as this one occurred all across the Commonwealth.
Scenes such as this one occurred all across the Commonwealth.

“I didn’t even know”
This marks another year of depressingly low turnout numbers, and while this isn’t a problem specific only to Massachusetts, it is one that has achieved record levels in the Bay State. With over 4.2 million registered voters, about as much as all of the rest of New England’s registered voters combined, Massachusetts continues to struggle to motivate even a fifth of them to turn out to vote in non-presidential elections. Secretary of the Commonwealth, William Francis Galvin, estimated that turnout would taper off at about 17%, and current uncertified results show that, unfortunately, he was right.

Unlike in years past, voters from both major parties were presented with contested elections. Depending on the town, some voters found they had more choices than others, but every Massachusetts resident who pulled a ballot this week was guaranteed at least one major contested race. Yet even then, as schools, halls, and polling precincts across the Commonwealth opened their doors, many found that it was once again the same old voters who come out to vote. Galvin put the blame on a general malaise with those who’ve decided to try their luck in the arena of politics, but for many, it was a much simpler reason as to why they didn’t show. They just didn’t know.

A Fisher, a Baker, an Election Day Maker
While the stage was primarily set for the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s race for a successor to governor Deval Patrick, a lone spotlight was occasionally flashed over the fight between the MassGOP’s Charlie Baker and Mark Fisher. That there was a race at all came as a surprise for a number of the MassGOP’s brass, as Fisher wasn’t expected to survive the Sample ballots for the town of Charlton.convention. The threat of one legal snafu later, and Fisher was granted access to compete in the primary, saving the MassGOP both a damaging inter-party conflict and an embarrassing PR disaster.

MassINC’s tracking polls, as well as those from Suffolk University, had typically shown Baker to have a commanding lead over Fisher, similar in number to the delegate tallies which came out of the party’s state convention. Baker confidently sat in the area of a 60 to a 70-point lead, with Fisher never leaving the high single digits or low teens. Part of this had to do with Fisher’s name recognition, which started low and never successfully took off. The primary was set to look like a repeat of the convention, and very well could have been, until only a handful of voters made the effort to show up on election day.

Government of the Interested, by the Interested, and for the Uninterested
The events of Tuesday offer Massachusetts voters a taste of what happens in low-turnout elections. Candidates who face off against frontrunners in David vs. Goliathesque scenarios will traditionally benefit from low-turnout races. Billing himself as the “conservative alternative” to Charlie Baker, Fisher would weather the electoral seas with a smaller, yet more enthusiastic membership base. Whether it be from a deep resonance with the message or a personality trait that just woos them, such voters tend to show up for their candidate regardless of the political climate. Such surprises have been seen in the past, such as with the “Buchanan Brigades” of 2000, the “Ron Paul Revolution” in the last two presidential cycles, and most recently in Eric Cantor’s defeat at the hands of David Brat earlier this year.

Turnout in Charlton's 4th precinct after 12 hours of being open.
Turnout in Charlton’s 4th precinct after 12 hours of being open.

Voter apathy created a scenario where Fisher voters suddenly gained a bigger presence in the pool, and he exceeded expectations and energized a base that the MassGOP has frequently had problems with. Claiming victory in a dozen and a half towns outright, as well as taking upward to 40% of the vote in every county west of Worcester, including in traditionally large population centers such as Worcester, Fitchburg, and Springfield paints a much different picture than the 10% or so most polling had been expecting him to get.

Go West, Young Martha
Such a problem was not uniquely reserved for the MassGOP either, as the same can be said to have happened with the gubernatorial fisticuffs between Coakley, Grossman, and Berwick. Initial polling had given Coakley a safe lead since she left the convention, with Grossman only once bridging an otherwise large 20-point gap. Berwick often performed in the low teens, with numbers similar to those seen by Mark Fisher in his race. The results? Coakley won with a slight plurality of only five points.

Analyzing the results of Tuesday’s primaries shows a consistent trend seen with both parties; The further west you went, the weaker the “frontrunner” became. Political scientists can attribute this to the differing climate of western Massachusetts, and they wouldn’t be wrong, however, there’s a second factor to be considered in the direct decline in the total number of voters. Galvin estimated that western Massachusetts would be the region most hit by poor voter turnout, with some towns generating turnouts in the single digits. Low turnouts and declining votes create the perfect storm for firebrands and underdog candidates to shake things up and create problems for parties further down the line.

If this remains constant, and it certainly has, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see Massachusetts’ three independent candidates overperform expectations in November.

All politics was local
It’s very easy to dismiss such results as the normal voter apathy associated with primaries, but for Massachusetts, it goes further than just Tuesday’s primary. Like a weed, it has dug its roots into the innermost workings of local government. Local elections all over have plummeted to embarrassing lows, as well as turnout in Massachusetts’ last statewide elections. This writer’s native Charlton barely cracked 5% this last spring in a town of over 9,500 registered voters. When former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal said all politics is local, the Massachusetts mammoth had no idea that large families would one day become electoral power-brokers.

A common question in election official circles is “what can we do?” A mix of traditional GOTV efforts has been only superficial, bringing voters to the polls who then proceed to either vote for single candidates or vote once and never return. Voter dissatisfaction with the election process also remains a consistent issue. Since the primary elections of 2010, numerous voters have voiced encouragement with the notion of a blanket style primary, as is used in Louisiana, and in a way, California, but there are significant concerns about whether this would actually damage the electoral process even more.

One thing for certain, however, is that voters in the Cradle have been increasingly taking such liberty for granted, and it’s only a matter of time before they find themselves stuck with a selection of candidates, as well as their parties, only representing those that bothered to show up.

But, perhaps, that’s exactly what might be needed to finally fix things.

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