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Report points to reasons for election turn-out

Date: 12/7/2011

Dec. 7, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Low voter turnout, particularly among the city’s Latino population, is the subject of a new analysis from the Springfield Institute, which rejected the notion that the lack of response in the last election could be simply chalked up to voter apathy.

“There’s a whole range of explanations,” Aron Goldman, executive director of the local nonprofit think-tank, said. He asserted it was not because voters were “lazy.”

Goldman, who was a volunteer in City Council President Jose Tosado’s mayoral bid, stressed the study was not related to his work promoting Tosado.

Pundits had predicted that if Latinos in Springfield turned out for the election in support of Tosado he could have defeated incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno. The analysis shows, though, that minority voters in the city largely stayed home.

Sixty-three percent of the city’s population is considered “minority.” Of that number, 22 percent of that group registered to vote and only 18 percent did vote in the election last month.

The report noted that in Puerto Rico, voter participation in elections could go as high as 90 percent.

The report also noted that participation among white voters is also on the decline.

The number of voters was greater during the last election in which there was a race for the senate as well as the first ward race for the City Council in more than 40 years.

Goldman said the report noted the following factors as possible influences:

• “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.”

• “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 snowstorm. The Oct. 29 snowstorm, and the June 1 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 Oct. 29 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.”

• “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).”

Goldman also noted that there were serious concerns about voting rights violations. At the request of City Councilor Zaida Luna, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent monitors to observe polling places in Springfield. Goldman said there were concerns about the distribution of provisional ballots and there will be a report on the city’s elections would be issued next month.

This was not the first time the DOJ has investigated Springfield elections practices. The city was successfully sued by the DOJ in 2006 for voting rights violation against minority voters.

Goldman also noted the lack of participation in the City Council race and that other than one ward seat there were not contests for ward representation.

“The same things that prevent people to vote are the same things that prevent them running for office and getting involved,” he said.

He maintained that issues such as the student achievement gap, health disparity issues and the unemployment rate affect participation in government.

“Think about the reasons ward representation came to Springfield in the first place. In a sense, it was a response to disparities,” Goldman said.

Goldman readily admitted that criticism of Tosado’s campaign, as a factor in drawing people to the polls, was valid.

The report concluded, “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.”

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