ATTLEBORO, Mass. (WPRI) — When Attleboro voters went to the polls last month for a special election, it marked the first time in 40 years that no incumbent mayor was on the ballot.
Dianne Sawyer was among the residents who braved a snowstorm to cast her vote in the race to replace Paul Heroux, who had stepped down as mayor after being elected Bristol County sheriff.
“I feel like it’s really important to come out and vote. It’s a great civics lesson,” Sawyer said. “People nowadays — they like to complain, but nobody does anything to take part in fixing the problem.”
Apparently, few others in Attleboro felt the same way. Voter turnout in the special election was less than 17%, with fewer than 6,000 of the city’s nearly 33,000 eligible voters showing up to cast a ballot. The new mayor, Cathleen DeSimone, won by fewer than 400 votes.
And while the timing of Attleboro’s special election was unusual, such a low turnout is no longer out of the ordinary across Bristol County and the rest of Massachusetts, where dozens of cities still hold their biennial municipal elections in odd-numbered years.
During the last municipal election cycle in 2021, voter turnout was just 24% in Fall River, 19% in Taunton and only 11% in New Bedford. Turnout that year for the regularly scheduled election in Attleboro was only slightly higher — at 22% — than it was for this year’s special election.
MassVOTE, a nonpartisan advocacy group, released a report last year documenting how participation in off-year elections has plunged all over Massachusetts during the last two generations. In Fall River, voter turnout was as high as 77% as recently as 1975, roughly triple the rate seen now.
“We’re watching the numbers, every odd year, get lower and lower,” Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE, told 12 News.
Many experts who’ve studied the turnout problem nationwide blame the declining circulation of local newspapers, arguing social media has made people more focused on national politics than their own cities and towns. Others cite a lack of competition for local elected offices or the fact that the United States has an unusually large number of elections compared with other countries.
“Low voter engagement with city politics is something of a paradox since cities control a variety of policy levers that can have major impacts on citizens’ day-to-day lives — and also since cities’ smaller sizes relative to states means that blocs of voters are more likely to influence election outcomes,” Daniel Hopkins, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a 2021 paper examining the problem.
MassVOTE argues there is a simple solution: move municipal elections to even-numbered years, so that voters choose their mayors, City Councils and School Committees on the same day that they are voting for president or governor.
“We know that when you move the elections to even-number years that you could possibly double and oftentimes triple the turnout,” Crawford said. “That’s what we’re after — really tripling civic participation and engagement and turnout.”
Rhode Island already took that step a decade ago, when the last two cities that still held municipal elections in odd-numbered years — Central Falls and Woonsocket — both moved their campaign for mayor and other local offices to even-numbered years.
In Central Falls, the change came after the city filed for bankruptcy during the administration of Mayor Charles Moreau, who later went to prison for corruption. Critics said the low turnout in odd-year elections had made it easier for Moreau and his cronies to keep control of city government.
“They felt that the low turnout on odd years was making it very difficult for different candidates to get involved and hopefully do a real challenge on incumbents,” said James Diossa, who succeeded Moreau as mayor and is now Rhode Island’s general treasurer.
The result: the number of votes cast for mayor in Central Falls soared from just 550 in 2013 to nearly 4,000 in 2016. Diossa said he saw a clear change in civic participation.
“People were more engaged, more in tune, more informed,” he said.
Other states have gone in the same direction.
In 2015, California enacted a law requiring municipalities to move their local elections from odd years to even years if voter turnout is consistently at least 25% lower than it is for even-year general elections. A later study by California Common Cause found that voter participation in local elections tripled on average in cities that made the switch.
“We need people to really engage, and so whatever it takes — if that means moving from odd to even, then let’s do it,” Crawford said. “Let’s make sure we’re giving people every opportunity to have their voices heard in our democracy.”
Mixed reaction from local mayors
12 News surveyed the mayors of all four Bristol County cities — New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton and Attleboro — to gauge their interest in potentially shifting the schedule for their municipal elections.
In New Bedford, Mayor Jon Mitchell described turnout in city elections as “abysmal.” But he expressed skepticism about whether switching the year would do any good.
Mitchell is also concerned about “a possible downside associated with the simultaneous turnover of both state and local officials as there would be a potential inconsistency and increased instability of representation,” his spokesperson Holly Huntoon said.
In Fall River — where municipal elections were held in even-numbered years for a period of time in the middle of the last century — Mayor Paul Coogan said the idea deserves study.
“Mayor Coogan would be open to Fall River’s current Charter Review Commission exploring the benefits of moving to even-numbered election years,” said Elaina Pevide, a spokesperson for Coogan.
In Taunton, Mayor Shaunna O’Connell said she’s already taking steps to address the turnout problem. She established a committee to revise the city charter, which has now recommended splitting the nine City Council seats into staggered three-year terms.
If approved by voters this fall, the change would “result in an election held every year,” said Ligia M. Madeira, O’Connell’s chief of staff. “The mayor believes that staggered terms will allow newer or lesser-known candidates to have a better chance at gaining publicity in races where only one-third of the seats are open and will help to create more diversity in local government.”
As for Attleboro, the winner of last month’s low-turnout special election — DeSimone, who is now in office as mayor — also expressed openness to the idea. Like Fall River, Attleboro held municipal elections during even-numbered years for a period of time during the last century, before switching to odd years in 1949.
“Everything that I have read on the matter indicates that voter turnout is greater in even-year elections,” DeSimone said in an email. “Having even-year elections would also save the city money, so at this point I would be in favor of switching to even-year elections.”
“Ultimately,” she added, “the question itself should be left to the voters to decide.”
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