They sat over cups of coffee early this summer and planned it out: a panel discussion on low-turnout elections, to be held two days after an election where turnout was especially bad.
The election? This one. The Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015 municipal election, which was expected to attract some of the most dismal turnout numbers in recent memory.
With universally grim predictions about this week’s election — which would decide the makeup of Boston’s city council as well as leadership in dozens of Massachusetts communities — professors Erin O’Brien of UMass Boston and Rachael Cobb of Suffolk University told Metro that if they were betting, they would bet this one would be bad.
“I’d put everything on red and spin,” O’Brien said. “This municipal election in Boston is really the perfect storm. It’s always bad if it’s not a presidential year, or a Congressional year or a mayoral year.”
Turnout in 2011 was 63,009 in 2011. Commonwealth Magazine predicted “fewer than 50,000” would hit the polls on Tuesday.
So now seemed like a good time to get a group of experts together to talk about change, said Cobb and O’Brien, co-regional leaders of the Scholars Strategy Network, who assembled a talk Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre whose roster features experts who study voter turnout.
On the menu of topics for the panel are possible solutions, for example moving municipal elections so they happen at the same time as presidential ones, which are huge draws to polling stations, organizers said.
There are other factors at play, Cobb said. City elections aren’t partisan, which means there aren’t Republicans and Democrats squaring off for votes, Cobb said. Changing that might spur interest in races, she said.
Also, they said, the sheer number of elections in the state can be burdensome to voters suffering election “fatigue.”
Plus, there isn’t much excitement in this cycle, with the exception of a contested race between longtime Councilor Charles Yancey and Andrea Campbell, a newcomer, in District 4, which falls in Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester and Roslindale.
Politicians, though, don’t exactly have the incentive to look for changes, O’Brien said. After all, she said, the system as it is helped incumbents get elected.
So planning to be part of the news cycle after the inevitable low voter turnout headlines makes sense as a way to shine light on the issue, the professors said.
The panel isn’t the only event timed to happen after the election this week.
Another group, the Election Modernization Coalition, picked Thursday to announce recommendations on putting to action the state’s early voting law, which passed in 2014 to cut down on lines at polling stations and, in theory, boost turnout by boosting convenience.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of coalition member group Common Cause Massachusetts, told Metro the timing wasn’t necessarily part of a master plan, and that the coalition's goals are not necessarily to boost turnout, but said the election could spur more media coverage.
“It’s partially coincidence,” Wilmot said. “But also I think people will have questions about the election as well.”
So is it cynical to schedule an event in the shadow of a less-than-inspiring election before it even happens?
Cobb doesn’t think so.
“[Electoral reform] is not an easy topic to elicit wild excitement over, whether or not a major election is going on. So the timing of it is because we’re all thinking about it at this moment,” Cobb said. “[Tuesday’s election) is a policy window — a moment for us to say, ‘There are some alternatives to this. This could be better.’”
Polls were scheduled to be open 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. in Boston. Check the city’s website to find the polling location in your precinct.