PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Six Rhode Island communities saw voter turnout slump to the lowest level in at least a generation during last month’s election, according to a Target 12 analysis of data from the R.I. Board of Elections.
Yet on the same day, six other communities saw voter turnout surge to the highest level for a midterm election since 2006. All six were located in the 2nd Congressional District, where both political parties poured millions of dollars into the race between Democrat Seth Magaziner and Republican Allan Fung.
Turnout statewide was just 44.3% this year, as about 361,000 of Rhode Island’s 815,000 eligible voters cast a ballot, according to the Board of Elections. That was the second-lowest turnout since the federal Motor Voter Act took effect in 1995 and spurred an expansion of voter rolls. (Turnout in Rhode Island hit a low of 43.8% in 2014.)
“It was about average,” said 12 News political analyst Joe Fleming. “Nothing outstanding.”
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Voter turnout was markedly higher in neighboring Massachusetts, where it topped 51%, according to the secretary of state. Roughly 2.5 million voters cast a ballot in the Bay State.
The lowest turnout in Rhode Island was in the state's smallest city, Central Falls, where fewer than 1,700 of its nearly 10,000 eligible voters cast a ballot in November. That gave Central Falls a turnout of just 18%; that was markedly lower than the city's previous recent low of 24% in 2014.
Fleming said he was somewhat surprised to see turnout so low in Central Falls considering the city's former mayor, James Diossa, was on the ballot as the Democratic nominee for general treasurer.
"I would have thought that would have brought some voters out, but it did not," he said.
Turnout was also unusually low in Providence, where it fell below 30% for the first time, reaching only 28%. Fewer than 34,000 of the capital city's nearly 125,000 eligible voters cast a ballot. The other places that hit new turnout lows were Pawtucket (28%), Woonsocket (28%), North Providence (41%), and Warren (46%).
"I think if there were more competitive races that turnout would have gotten higher," Fleming said, noting that in Providence the Democratic nominee for mayor, Brett Smiley, faced no opponents in the general election.
No Rhode Island community set a post-1995 voter turnout record for a midterm election this year, as 2006 remains the year to beat. (That was the election which saw a titanic U.S. Senate race between Lincoln Chafee and Sheldon Whitehouse.)
But six communities in the 2nd District posted their highest modern midterm voter turnout since then: Charlestown (58%), Hopkinton (53%), Narragansett (57%), Richmond (54%), South Kingstown (57%) and Westerly (50%).
In the past an election which saw record-low turnout in the urban core but solid turnout in the suburbs might have been bad news for Democrats, but this year the party swept every statewide and federal race, including the close Magaziner-Fung contest.
"What's happening is, as we see in other states, the Democratic area is expanding," Fleming said. "The suburbs -- North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett, East Greenwich -- all years ago would be more Republican and the bigger turnouts there would help the Republicans. But now look what's happening -- they're starting to help the Democrats."
Fleming also noted that the number of eligible voters in Rhode Island has been growing markedly, jumping by 15% over the last decade, but the number of voters who cast ballots in non-presidential years has fluctuated within a narrow range of about 330,000 to 380,000. (Presidential election turnout hit a record of 521,000 two years ago.)
"It's one thing to get them registered -- it's another thing to get them to the polls," Fleming said.
The two communities in the state with the highest voter turnout this year were Jamestown and Little Compton, both of which hit 62%.
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi's Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this article inadvertently substituted Pawtucket's vote totals for Providence's.