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Turnout Measures A Share Of Registered Voters, But There's More To The Numbers

A voting sign.
Keith Ivey
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/kcivey

Turnout is notoriously low in some of the region's big cities. But if you mix Census age data with turnout numbers, there are a couple surprises.

In 2016, all of New England's eight biggest cities managed to register close to or well over two-thirds of all their adults.

But Springfield, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island, stand out with the highest percentage of registered voters in 2016, at 88 and 90 percent respectively. Contrast that with their traditional turnout numbers -- the lowest among big New England cities, at 53 and 45 percent.

Rachael Cobb at Suffolk University said usually people who are white, older, more affluent and more educated vote more than other demographics. But a lot of variables drive voter registration, she said, including some that might be unique to that year's election.

“Sometimes it's a very competitive race or issue,” Cobb said. “It could be that there are some very effective groups that have made the case. Or there's some sort of polarizing issue, that might not be local, but that is driving turnout.”

Hartford and Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 2016 had the smallest percentages of their adults registered to vote. And they ranked the lowest on getting everyone over 18 to the polls, at around a third.

That's not so different from the cities at the top of the list that year: among adults in Stamford, Connecticut, and Boston, about half showed up at the polls.

There are a lot of factors at play. Many adults aren't eligible to vote, such as non-citizens or people serving a sentence for a felony.

So how do we know if get-out-the-vote efforts are working? Cobb said looking for big participation changes from one election to another is one way to track it.

“The best indicator we have is, assuming a population is going to be somewhat stable over a two- to four-year period, we can compare turnout in one election to a similar election,” Cobb said. “So we would want to compare midterm to midterm, president to president, local to local.”

Comparing those differences, Cobb said -- noting an increase or decrease -- can shed light on whether efforts to encourage people to vote are successful.

Heather Brandon began at NEPM in 2017 as Digital News Editor. She served as the news department's Managing Editor during the coronavirus pandemic.
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