BOSTON (State House News Service) – The keys to increasing voter engagement, according to a former statewide candidate, a veteran campaign strategist and a voting rights activist, are trust in the political process, diverse outreach that matches messengers to their audiences, and civic education that emphasizes involvement even when it’s not election season.
The virtual discussion was held Tuesday by the Boston Foundation as it kicks off a series of nonpartisan talks on voter engagement and access leading up to the November federal midterm and state elections. Voter engagement has taken on new meaning in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and mainstream denials of the 2020 election results.
A New York Times/Siena College poll released Tuesday found that 71 percent of respondents agreed that “American democracy is currently under threat” and that 50 percent think America’s political system is now too divided to solve the nation’s problems.
“If we’re all kind of watching this degradation of our democracy, of kind of more and more division, and it has really serious implications on voting, what are we going to do about it? So I think there’s a couple of things. One is, this is why civic education, to most of us, feels like an important place to go,” Adam Hinds, who resigned from the Massachusetts Senate last month to take over as executive director of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, said. “We’ve seen surveys by CIRCLE Initiative at Tufts, it’s kind of shown … there’s a lack of knowledge typically about either how to vote, why it matters, how the government is working, how to get engaged, and so it feels like to flex those muscles of democracy, civic education and engagement is the key piece to that work.”
Wilnelia Rivera, president of Rivera Consulting Inc. and a longtime organizer, pointed out that “voter engagement, in reality, is about people’s everyday lives.”
Hinds keyed off of a presentation given by Boston Indicators research analyst Peter Ciurczak showing how local elections generally see the lowest levels of voter turnout and national presidential elections generally attract the greatest share of voters. The recent lieutenant governor candidate said it was “mind-boggling” that turnout would be lowest for the elections that can have the most direct impacts on people’s daily lives.
“From my perspective, again being involved in state government, it felt like that’s where you can see millions of dollars shift in your community overnight,” Hinds said, using the multi-million dollar impact of the Student Opportunity Act on Pittsfield as an example. He added, “It was pretty obvious for me to make that case when people are saying, ‘Why should I vote?’ And so I think translating that is important.”
But it becomes harder to make the case that the people chosen in elections have a direct connection to a voter’s quality of life, Hinds said, when it is increasingly the national political personalities and issues that get people interested in voting.
“We’ve kind of seen a nationalization of the press — except for the tremendous press corps that’s on this call of course — but you know, we’ve seen it, literally a nationalization of press,” he said. “A lot of people, when I’m talking about which elections are driving them to the polls and who they’re thinking about in terms of who they like and dislike, it’s increasingly [that] we see this involves national level folks instead of governors and below.”
MA Voter Table Executive Director Beth Huang said it all comes back to trust and people trusting that their vote actually can lead to change in their community. But that trust between a candidate or elected official and voters can’t only exist when an election is coming up, she said.
“Trust is broken when candidates make big promises, their campaign office is closed by that Wednesday or Thursday after Election Day, and then people vote and things don’t change,” Huang said. “And so I think sometimes we see a trust broken when there aren’t continued organizations or structures for people to be engaged year-round.”
Rivera, who had a big hand in U.S. Rep Ayanna Pressley’s successful challenge to incumbent Mike Capuano in 2018, said that trust is at the core of what she does. No campaign — be it political or a public health initiative — is going to be successful getting its message out to the people it is trying to reach unless it uses messengers who are trusted by different segments of the audience.
“What I’ve come to understand because of the reality of a multiracial state, which is who we are and what we will continue to be, is that we need to be able to have multi-layered messages and news mediums that allow us to actually deliver that message,” she said. “So whether that’s radio or print media in the smaller market, I always say that’s part of the secret sauce of talking to people of color in this state. People, some other folks, are just actually literally listening to other mediums, right? And how do you layer that in a way that allows for that to happen? I mean, we saw that with the vaccines. That’s why our vaccination campaigns went so well.”
There were 1,053,977 ballots cast in the state’s September primary elections — 777,819, in the Democratic primary and 276,158 in the Republican contests. In terms of raw votes, the only statewide primary election since 1990 with more ballots cast was 2020, but the turnout rate of 21.8 percent equaled the rate in 2018 — a year when the options were more limited for voters.
This year, voters can cast a ballot in-person on Election Day at their polling place, vote in-person at a convenient time during the two-week early voting period, or fill out a blank ballot and return it by mail. As of noon Tuesday, 1,049,321 voters (21.7 percent) had requested a mail-in ballot, clerks had mailed out 951,297 ballots and 65,494 voters had already cast their vote by mail, according to Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office.
Early voting for the Nov. 8, 2022 statewide election begins Saturday, Oct. 22 and runs until Nov. 4. Each community has its own schedule for early voting and will offer at least some weekend voting hours during the two weekends in the early voting period.
Mail-in ballots are also beginning to hit mailboxes and be returned to local clerks. Voters in Massachusetts no longer need an excuse to vote by mail and have until Nov. 1 to request a ballot be sent to them.
“This goes back to the questions of trust again. I think any method of voting that is both easy and trustworthy to the voter is a good way of casting a ballot. Some people love the convenience of getting their ballot in the mail and taking the time to look over materials on their kitchen table. … And then some people love to see their neighbors at their local polling locations on Election Day,” Huang said. She added, “All of these are good options for people to demonstrate their power in this election.”