Chances are, the vast majority of Lexington’s voters will not cast a ballot in the Annual Town Election on March 6. Like, 80 to 90 percent of them.
That’s, of course, speculation. But it’s not an unreasonable guess. Each year in March – typically on a Monday – Lexington holds an election to determine the Town Moderator and a subset of the Select Board, School Committee, Planning Board, Housing Authority, and Town Meeting. Turnout is generally low, despite Lexington’s high 92% voter registration rate. Even though local government is a caretaker of so much that is closest to us — our schools, public library, playing fields and conservation lands, the welfare of our elders and those in need, the health and safety of our homes and streets and places of commerce, the very tone that’s set as we communally negotiate inevitable change — turnout in local elections is typically low for towns across the Commonwealth. In 2021, for example, when turnout for Lexington’s Annual Town Election was 12%, Lincoln’s turnout was 9.46%, Arlington’s was 19.69%, and Concord’s was 13.55%. This means our towns are governed by people who are chosen by a tiny minority of the electorate. Our local voting habits reveal something about ourselves — about the presence and absence of a certain kind of community engagement, connection, and awareness.
Three main factors are thought to contribute to the phenomenon of low voter turnout in local elections: timing, competition, and information.
First, timing. Why was turnout just 12% in Lexington’s March 2021 election, but 44% in the March 2020 election? Because in 2020, the Annual Town Election was held on the same day as the state presidential primary. This tracks with the research: when a local election is held at the same time as a state or federal election, turnout is higher.
“We know for sure that the easiest way to increase turnout in local elections is to put them in even-numbered years and have them line up with federal elections,” says Suffolk University Associate Professor Rachael Cobb. In Massachusetts, such a change would require an act of the Legislature: by state law, town elections must occur between February and June, in conjunction with Annual Town Meeting, which must be completed by June 30. (Contrast California, which requires local governments to move their elections to a statewide election date if voter turnout is too low.)
Turnout is also low when races are unopposed. “People participate when there’s competition,” Cobb says. “If your choice is that there’s no choice, then why even vote?”
In Lexington’s upcoming March 6 election, the only contested race is for Town Meeting seats in Precinct 7. Last year’s townwide election included a contested School Committee race, while a Planning Board race was contested in 2021 – but Lexington has not had a contested Select Board election since 2019. Local races may be uncontested for a variety of reasons: local officials are often unpaid; it’s costly to finance a campaign against an incumbent; and the demands of office are enormous. All of Lexington’s elected Town officials are volunteers, and they put in hours that can rival a full-time job. Plus, the sheer number of seats that Lexington must fill on an annual basis is staggering. For Town Meeting alone, some 63 seats are on the ballot each year (at least seven for each of nine precincts). It can be hard to get them filled, let alone contested.
One reform that could encourage competition, according to Rice University Professor Melissa Marschall, is ranked choice voting, also known as instant run-off voting, because it increases the chances that a challenger can defeat an incumbent. A referendum to establish ranked choice voting in Massachusetts was defeated in 2020. Bills have been filed in the legislature that would permit municipalities to opt for ranked choice voting.
Lack of competition contributes to the dearth of information that can dampen voter turnout. Competitive races generate buzz. Without that buzz, voters are less likely to know that an election is coming up at all. Additionally, Massachusetts local elections, including Lexington’s, are nonpartisan: the signifiers D or R, which at a glance can tell voters something about a candidate’s views, aren’t present on a local ballot. (In California’s nonpartisan local elections, candidates identify themselves by occupation. “That gives voters some information, like, do I want a realtor or do I want a retired person or a stay-at-home mom,” Marschall says.) The decline of local journalism has also had an impact. The Lexington Minuteman was once an indispensable local election resource. Now, it hardly covers Lexington at all.
Voters in local elections tend to be business and political leaders and the people in their networks, or those who feel a social connection to their community. Karen Griffiths, for example, isn’t interested in running for office, but she senses that Lexington’s town government matters in her life. “If our police station isn’t funded, or if we don’t have enough police officers or firefighters, that’s not good,” she says. “What if they made a decision not to pay for things like Cary Library, and the library wasn’t open as much? I’m making that up, but they make decisions like that.” Griffiths votes, she says, because she wants to “try to make sure that the people who are making these decisions are thoughtful and reasonable and going to do the best they can.” She learns about issues and candidates from knowledgeable friends in Town Meeting, by talking to people whose opinions she respects and trusts, and by attending candidate coffees and the League of Women Voters candidate forums.
Not everyone is able to cultivate the kind of civic-minded network that would help them stay on top of elections and voting. Being new in town, having a consuming work-life schedule, being the point-person for family members who need extra care — all these and more can isolate people from the community, and describe the circumstances of many Lexington residents. Even if voting is important to them, it’s hard to make it a priority.
Committed voters often speak of voting with reverence and urgency. Jodia Finnagan is a Precinct 6 Town Meeting Member and elections poll worker. She says, “I tell my kids all the time that it’s important for us to know who the attorney general is, who the sheriff is, who the district attorney is, because we’re Black and we should know these things, and you should be voting on these things because it matters.”
Kaveesh Pathak, an activist and Lexington High School senior who will cast the first ballot of his life on March 6, says, “I want to exercise my power as an individual by voting, and making sure that I can influence what happens in government, whatever level that is.” Pathak noticed, however, that in November, what drew his friends to the polls was not the candidates, but the ballot questions. For younger voters, “being a good citizen is doing other things — getting involved in your community, taking a stand on political issues, contributing to nonprofit groups, volunteering your time,” says American University Professor Jan Leighley, who, like Cobb, is an expert for the MIT Election Data Science Lab.
Helping infrequent voters to grasp how the quality of their lives depends profoundly on who gets elected is Naomi Campbell, a former Lexington resident and director of the Right Question Institute’s Legal Empowerment Program. She says that RQI’s voter engagement work is “aimed at people who use government services.” RQI’s nonpartisan Why Vote? Tool helps people discover that the services they need are put in place — or not — by those who are voted to office.
To vote, people need information not only about candidates and issues, but also about the process itself. “Voting is not easy. There’s nothing logical or obvious about what the rules are,” says Leighley, the American University professor. “When reporters or politicians will say, ‘it’s not that hard to vote,’ well, no. Wait a minute. Individual citizens need to go through this multi-step process, which is not uniform across the United States.”
In Oregon, for example, voting happens exclusively by mail, and registered voters are automatically mailed their ballots. Things are more complicated here. You can vote at the polls, or under the new VOTES Act, you can vote by mail. To get your mail-in ballot, you must first apply. You’ll automatically receive an application form for state and federal elections, but not for local elections. There’s early voting in person — except if it’s a local election.
Lexington’s Town Clerk Mary de Alderete has tried to help voters apply for their mail-in ballots for the March election by including a reminder in the town’s census mailing, along with a QR code. She’s also created an application form so family members in one household can fill out a single form together. This is just one of the ways that the VOTES Act, which also shortened the voter registration deadline to 10 days before election day, has changed the administration of elections. “It’s made everything busier,” de Alderete says. She says that it costs anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 to run an election, and requires the work of about 100 people — people from the Lexington community who step forward to be election wardens and poll workers.
Two such people are Susan Rockwell and Stephen Perkins. Rockwell is the election warden for Precinct 1. On Election Day, she works from 6 a.m. to past 8 p.m., making sure that voting proceeds smoothly and according to law. “The whole process is just a way for me to help the Town, and make sure that people who want to vote have an opportunity to do so,” she says.
Perkins, an election worker in Precinct 2, says, “I’ve been at polling places that were understaffed or overstaffed, and I can see how smoothly or not it works as a function of whether or not there are enough people there. So, it seems to me that it’s an important thing to do, and I am in that time of life when I can afford to do it.”
Much remains unknown about the causes of low voter turnout in local Massachusetts elections generally, let alone Lexington specifically. Massachusetts local governments are idiosyncratic and not entirely comparable to other states and regions. We’re not easy to study. Rice University’s Marschall researches voter turnout all over the country — but she’s given up on Massachusetts. “You’re more decentralized, so there’s no way to get your local election data from the state, and going little place to little place trying to get them directly from your clerks — it’s just too much time and energy,” she says.
But political scientists do know that commitment to voting is social. When we come from families and communities who model and teach voter engagement, when our friends and social groups consist of ardent voters, we’re likely to be voters, too. Maybe that’s a place to start.
Editor’s Note: The author is a member of the Vision for Lexington Subcommittee on Local Election Voter Participation. The author is also married to a Lexington Select Board member.