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As Election Day approaches, some Northampton officials fear low turnout



Thursday, October 29, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — When Northampton voters head to the polls Tuesday, they will receive a municipal ballot which for the first time in the city’s history does not include the mayor’s position — and some city officials are worried this could mean low turnout.

“This election is so totally different,” said Northampton City Clerk Wendy Mazza, who has worked in the office since 1971 and served as clerk since 2004.

Northampton’s new city charter, adopted in 2012, extended mayoral terms from two to four years. In 2013, Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz and was elected to a four-year term, meaning there won’t be another mayoral election until 2017.

In municipal election years, heated mayoral elections and ballot questions — which in the past have asked about repealing the Community Preservation Act, expanding the Northampton landfill and supporting development on Village Hill, among other issues — tend to be what draw voters to the polls, Mazza said. Without either, and considering she has heard less election chatter this year, Mazza said she expects turnout could be as low as 20 percent, though she hopes voters prove her wrong.

As of the Oct. 14 deadline for registering to vote in Tuesday’s election, Northampton had 19,556 registered voters.

Historical turnout

Since 1999, turnout for municipal elections has ranged from 22.2 percent to 52.7 percent.

In 2013, when Narkewicz ran unopposed and there were no ballot questions, 6,088 of 19,778 registered voters made it to the polls, or 30.8 percent. In 2011, when there was a contested mayoral election and a ballot question, turnout was 48.7 percent.

Of the past eight municipal elections, the city saw its highest turnout rate in 1999, when Mary Clare Higgins beat Tony M. Long in a highly contested race for mayor.

Shift in mayoral term

Of 46 municipalities in the state that have mayors, 17 have four-year mayoral terms. Since 2000, six of eight municipalities that have voted on making the switch to a four-year term have done so, said Stephen McGoldrick, the interim director of the Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massa­chu­setts Boston, who has advised a number of local communities on their governance structures.

Springfield voters approved switching to four-year mayoral terms in 2009. Just 11.7 percent of its 99,517 registered voters cast ballots in 2013, the city’s first municipal election that did not include the mayor’s position. That marked a significant decrease from the five prior municipal elections, where turnout ranged from 22.1 to 33.6 percent, according to city data.

Throughout the conversations he has had with municipalities about changing to four-year mayoral terms, McGoldrick said, someone invariably brings up the issue of voter turnout, but it never merits more than 15 minutes of discussion.

“You don’t base a decision (to switch to a four-year mayoral term) on how it may affect voter turnout on the off year, especially if you don’t have data to back it up,” he said.

There’s no statewide data on municipal election turnout, he added, which makes it a difficult issue to track. Speaking broadly, though, McGoldrick said he is skeptical that mayoral races, unless highly contested, have much of an effect on turnout.

Instead, he pointed to general voter apathy and lack of contested races as reasons people may decide to stay home on Election Day.

Narkewicz, for his part, said he sees no reason voters should abstain simply because there isn’t a mayoral race.

“Even though the mayor is not on the ballot, the direction of the city is,” he said, explaining that the City Council, as Northampton’s legislative body, helps him chart the city’s course.

The School Committee, too, he said, is critically important, as it controls about 55 percent of city spending. And there’s another change this election — all School Committee candidates are on the ballot at once for two-year terms. Previously, School Committee terms lasted four years and elections were staggered by ward.

This change, along with the lack of a mayoral race, makes it a historic election, Narkewicz said, as it means the city charter has fully taken effect.

Narkewicz also cited the amount of interest in the Forbes Library trustee race, which has five candidates running for three positions, as something to consider as Tuesday’s election approaches.

“I think there are a lot of important choices people have to make in this election, even without the mayor on the ballot,” he said. “These are the folks that are going to affect the day-to-day lives of the residents of Northampton. These are the folks that are going to be working with the mayor, in some cases as a check or a counterweight, to make sure the mayor is leading the city in a direction people support.”

Lack of competition

Another issue in play is the lack of competition in most races.

“Listen, if your district councilor is not opposed, why come out?” McGoldrick said, pointing to what he said is likely a common thought among ordinary residents, though he encouraged them to vote regardless. “The real question is, why don’t we have more contested elections?”

Northampton has four contested races, and three are citywide. Three people are running for two at-large City Council seats, four are running for two at-large School Committee seats, two are running for an open Ward 6 School Committee seat, and five are running for three Forbes Library trustee positions.

“I feel like it’s a very low-key election, unfortunately,” Ward 3 City Councilor Ryan O’Donnell said, noting like Mazza that he hopes he is proven wrong. “Generally speaking, the city seems like it’s on sound financial footing — there’s no override on the horizon. The usual hallmarks of a competitive election don’t seem to be there.”

It’s hard to know what low turnout signifies, Mazza said. It could be that people are satisfied with their current representatives and don’t feel the need to vote, or it could be that they simply aren’t aware of the election.

But no matter how many people come out to vote, or the number of positions on the ballot and how contested they are, elections require the same amount of work and money, she said, estimating that this election will cost around $15,000.

In a city like Northampton, Narkewicz said, he’s hopeful citizens will play their role.

“People are really strongly committed to the community and the issues and are involved,” he said. “And I’m optimistic that will translate into people coming to the polls.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.