How do you increase voter turnout for a municipal election? Some elected officials in the largest city in western Massachusetts believe they have an answer.
With a large impressive field of candidates for at-large seats on the Springfield City Council that included veteran politicians and several well-known community activists, coupled with the retirements of two longtime incumbents, last year’s election was expected to generate a level of voter interest not seen since ward council seats were added 10 years ago.
But voter turnout on Election Day was an anemic 9.9 percent, a near record-low.
"It is always disappointing when you don't have a decent voter turnout," said City Councilor Kateri Walsh, the dean of the city’s legislative body, who is one of the leading supporters of a new push to change councilors’ terms from two years to four years, and put the council elections on the same four-year cycle as voting for mayor.
" I think having a longer term and having the mayor at the top of the ticket would make a big difference in turnout," said Walsh.
The council recently voted 8-4 to petition the state legislature to authorize a binding question on the 2019 ballot that if approved by Springfield voters would have candidates running for four-year terms on the City Council starting with the 2021 election.
Springfield Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola said she has looked at data and there is no evidence that going to a four-year term for City Councilors will significantly improve voter turnout.
" What we've seen is that it really doesn't increase the voter turnout and the cost-savings is negligible,"said Oyola.
In 2015, the last time there was an election in Springfield with a contested race for mayor along with a council election, voter turnout was just below 17 percent.
If terms for city councilors were changed to four years and ran concurrently with the mayoral term it would mean that every three years there would be no election in Springfield. Oyola worries that could negatively affect turnout because people would be out of the “habit” of voting.
The mayoral term in Springfield was changed from two years to four years starting with the 2011 election after voters approved it in a binding referendum in 2009. Northampton and Holyoke recently changed mayoral terms from two years to four years, but left council terms unchanged at two years. Greenfield has three-year terms for both the mayor and city councilors.
Matt Szafranski, Editor-in-Chief of Western Mass. Politics & Insight, said he’s detected no groundswell of popular support for changing the city council terms to four years.
" There is no public lobby or grassroots interest and that is compared to when they changed the mayoral term to four years, there was an interest in that," said Szafranski. " Councilors will point to the non-binding question they had in 2015, but there was no campaign for that one way or the other."
After the non-binding vote in 2015, which passed 66 percent to 33 percent, a special act of the state legislature was requested for a binding voter referendum on extending council terms to four years. The legislature took no action.
Likewise, the legislature has, so far, ignored a petition filed last year from Boston City Councilors who want to extend their terms from two years to four years.
Massachusetts legislators must face the voters every two years.