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Why bother? An Idiot’s Guide to City Elections Pt. 1
If no one is voting, why should I?
First of all, you’re not an idiot, sorry about that. And you’re especially not an idiot if you don’t know about city elections, know how they work or you think to yourself “why should I care.” The short answer is you really shouldn’t. City Hall has done very little to inspire enthusiasm or materially benefit any normal person’s life, and in fact they’ve been mostly content to let the market do its thing and make things worse for Worcester residents on the whole. If you think about city politics and you think “who cares it’s all bullshit,” you’re sort of on the right track, and you’re certainly more on the right track than the majority of people who would try to convince you otherwise.
The main reason I think you should care this year is that if you don’t it’s very likely we’ll have an active duty police officer on our City Council and a woman who openly hates gay people on our School Committee. Their names are Richard Cipro and Shanel Soucy respectively and they’re bad news. For background:
Here’s Soucy saying the quiet part super loud on Facebook. Yikes.
“I do not support homosexual behavior. Never have, never will.”
A poor turnout like the one we saw in the preliminary election last month will benefit people like this—a small but highly motivated voting base of right wing psychos who are in the tank for these two jabronis.
Think about that viral video of the woman at the school committee meeting screaming about anal sex and you get the idea.
There are hundreds of that woman in Worcester and each has at least one male counterpart and they’re all going to vote. They think Joe Petty is a cultural Marxist for making them wear a mask and they want vengeance. Around every corner lurks an Antifa Thug waiting to slap their mother in the face with a double-sided dildo and they’re terrified. They’ve strapped up all the concealed carry they can fit on their person and they’ve got their head on a swivel looking for those dildos.
We have to live with these people. They’re not going anywhere and neither is their worldview. Worcester, like every other city in the Commonwealth (save maybe Cambridge), has to contend with them and their brand of white middle class conservatism that is unique to Massachusetts in just how racist, authoritarian and willfully know-nothing it can be. But that doesn’t mean they get to have power. There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.
So please please please please please please please please please vote on Nov. 2. It’s easy, I promise.
How easy? This easy:
First things first, you gotta make sure you’re registered, and you need to register by Oct. 13—that’s next Wednesday—to vote in the city elections.
If you’re not registered to vote in Worcester, you can do it here. It’s all online and it takes two seconds. You can also check to see if you’re registered if you’re not sure. I checked my information just now and it was *chef’s kiss* very easy.
If you’re registered to vote and you don’t know where to vote or what district you’re in, you put your last name and date of birth in this here form on the city website, and voila, now you know where to vote.
After that, it’s all about just showing up and hey, turns out it’s never been easier to show up!! The city is hosting early voting for two weeks prior to the election. There’s one location open per day, and you can go there no matter where you live. Here’s that full schedule just so you have it:
Saturday, Oct. 23: Nelson Place Elementary School, 35 Nelson Place. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 24: City Hall, 455 Main St. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Monday, Oct 25: Living Word Church of Worcester, 30 Tyler Prentice Rd. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Tuesday, Oct 26: Worcester Senior Center, 128 Providence St. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 27: Central Community Branch YMCA. 766 Main St. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 28: Stearns Tavern, 140 Mill St. 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 29: Worcester State University May St. Building. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
If you want to find the closest location, the city has a nifty map of all the locations and when they’re open.
If you want to put some time in to get to know the candidates for yourself, there are lots of opportunities to do so! Nicole Apostola has a comprehensive list of forums up on her blog and a comprehensive write-up on a recent forum for the at-large city council candidates.
For the at-large city council/mayoral race, I’d suggest the YWCA forum on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m., 1 Salem Square.
For the school committee race, I’d suggest the Oct. 20 forum put on by the local YWCA. Takes place at 1 Salem Square at 6 p.m.
For the two contested district council races (D1, D2 and D5—and Cipro is running in D1), I’d suggest the one at Mechanics Hall on Monday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.
If you don’t want to go to any of these forums or watch any of them online, part two through four of this series will be comprehensive guides on each race including my personal endorsements and the opposite of endorsements :)
So there you go, that’s all the information you need to actually show up and vote. But for now, I want to spend some time on what it means to simply show up. Turnout itself has been one of the biggest lingering problems in city politics for decades.
In Worcester, and in most cities for that matter, very few people give a shit about city elections despite the myriad reasons there are for giving a shit. A municipal election in which 20 percent of registered voters actually vote is considered a good turnout. In the last municipal election, in 2019, turnout was 17 percent. In 2017, even worse: 15 percent. 2015: 21 percent. Not bad! But then there’s 2013: 14 percent.
Go back a couple decades to 1989, and turnout was 42 percent. Go back further and it gets harder to calculate. The results provided on the city website don’t account for turnout, just overall ballots cast. But let’s just use this bizarro example from 1963, when 46,500 people voted against putting fluoride in the drinking water and 11,168 voted in favor.
That’s 57,668 people voting, and in 1963 Worcester’s population was about the same it is now.
The question of why this is is complex and manifold, and I’ll get into that a little later, but for now here are some of the reasons you should care:
One, elected officials stay in office by representing the interests of the people who elected them. Might seem like a reductive statement but there are a whole lot of issues baked into it. In Worcester, elections are overwhelmingly decided by a very small group of people who live in a small geographic area of the city we’ll loosely call the West Side. They are majority white, majority well-off, and majority home-owning. When it comes to an issue like, say, gentrification, it’s easy to see how this group of people’s interests may not align with the rest of the city. A ridiculous and artificially-fueled surge in property value is a good thing if you already own a home and are in the position to sell it. The issues facing renters and first-time home buyers are of little material interest to this group of people, and that is reflected in the priorities and the decisions made by the people they elect to represent. With a housing situation like the one we have right now, new affordable housing units should be a top priority. Under the current administration it is at best an afterthought.
Same goes for issues related to public safety and the criminal justice system. If elected officials are decided by a small group of property owners who have had limited interactions with police and certainly limited negative interactions, issues of police reform and oversight will be of little concern.
If elected officials are decided by a small group of mostly white property owners, issues faced by students in the district who face language barriers as well as barriers produced by racism and poverty are not given the attention they deserve.
It’s important to keep in mind that showing up to vote is not about acknowledging what City Hall has done for you. It’s likely they’ve done little, if nothing at all. It’s likely that if you’ve paid attention at all to city politics you’ve been punished for it, for the most part.
Rather, showing up to vote is an acknowledgement of what the city hasn’t done for you, and what the city could do in the event we elect a roster of officials with the political vision and will to make it happen.
If you were dismayed to see the near complete failure of Worcester City Hall to address the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement—they increased the police budget, backed the police department when they were violent against demonstrators, and offered a thoroughly lacking package of reforms months after they should have—you should show up to vote.
If your rent has been skyrocketing or you feel boxed out of the housing market by insane prices and a hot market dominated by real estate speculators, you should show up to vote.
If your neighborhood floods every time it rains and you drive on roads that look like Fallujah circa 2004, and meanwhile the city dumps the most money any city ever has into a minor league baseball stadium, show up to vote.
If you have a child in the public school district and they’re going to crumbling schools with ancient textbooks and packed classrooms and you don’t feel they’re getting the support they need, show up to vote.
Still, none of these issues are very new or even unique to Worcester and it does stand to reason that if there was a convincing case to be made to get people to show up to vote, well, it would have already been made. The obvious answer is there’s a dearth of candidates who inspire enthusiasm. And historically, that’s true. I’m not the only person to joke that the City Council is a job for bad realtors and even worse attorneys. Having observed the City Council for years, I can say firsthand that the petty squabbles, rivalries and goofy pet projects that appear to dominate the attention of the councilors, well… it doesn’t inspire much confidence that any of them are looking out for you and me.
It’s different this year. There are candidates worth getting excited about. Etel Haxhiaj is running a strong, tight campaign on a squarely left-wing platform in District 5. Her focus on environmental justice and affordable housing are tracking with residents and she did very well in the primary. Thu Nguyen is a nonbinary Vietnamese immigrant running for at-large council on a platform that’s strong on youth programming and hard on corporate tax breaks. Jermoh Kamara is running for School Committee on a platform strong on social safety net measures for students who fall through the cracks. Johanna Hampton-Dance is challenging District 2 Councilor Candy Mero-Carlson on an aggressive police reform and affordable housing platform. These are just a few and I’ll save it for my upcoming guides on each race.
Still, the question of why it is so hard to get people interested and engaged in city politics is a tricky one, and it’s the subject of no small amount of academic research. One issue often pointed to that could be easily remedied is the fact that city elections tend to happen opposite state and federal elections. Worcester city elections are on a two-year cycle but, for some reason, they don’t align with races for the governor, the state’s congressional delegation or the president. Turnout in presidential elections is the highest. The 2020 election in Worcester saw a 64 percent voter turnout—a remarkable number next to the 17 percent the city’s last municipal election saw. A 2018 op-ed in the New York Times hits the nail on the head as far as Worcester goes.
The result is that an extraordinarily unrepresentative set of residents determines how local governments distribute services and spend the almost $2 trillion that local governments control. In some places, that means that politically active conservative, wealthy, older, white voters have disproportionate sway over local government. In others that means that organized and energetic unions can move policy their way. Seldom is that control shared across the spectrum — and democracy suffers as a result.
According to the article, municipal elections average 27 percent voter turnout across the country. Worcester’s, as I demonstrated earlier, is significantly lower than that.
A 2016 study from researchers at Portland State University found that the median age of voters in municipal elections is 57, and that city residents 65 and older were 15 times more likely to cast a ballot than voters age 18–35. Further, turnout numbers are geographically concentrated. There are areas in cities where turnout is less than half the citywide average. This holds true in Worcester, where the “west side” holds the majority of the city’s reliable municipal voters. The area is, predictably, richer and more white than most of the city.
The thesis of this study just happens to be the thesis of this post.
When too few people elect local leaders, a small fraction of residents can have outsize influence in decisions about critical issues like schools, parks, housing, libraries, police and transportation.
There are more than half a million local elected officials in the U.S., and their decisions affect all of our lives. If more Americans participate in local elections—and local elections are set up to encourage broad participation—local officials will be held accountable to everyone they represent.
A Knight Foundation study on the issue titled “Why Millennials Don’t Vote for Mayor” takes a stab at some of the root causes of the age gap in municipal elections. Using focus groups, the foundation found that millennials such as myself do not vote in local elections because they don’t have enough information on local candidates, they don’t know enough about the local issues, and there’s not enough news coverage of local elections.
If I had the funding and the time I’d love to do a study charting side-by-side the decline in local journalism and the decline in participation in local elections. I think Worcester would be a great, clear-eyed subject for the study.
But it’s not solely the fault of the meager and diminishing ranks of the local press. Though a healthy local press corps would probably render a guide like the one you’re reading right now useless,it’s not the whole story. Young people tend to be more transient than their older counterparts, moving from city to city at a more frequent clip. They also do not own homes at nearly the same rate that older residents do, per the report. This is something that’s so obvious it barely warrants pointing out. I mean just look around. But since no one in my generation can afford to own a home, the question of how property taxes are collected and distributed is a pretty abstract one, and that just happens to be one of the key questions in municipal government. I don’t own a home, nor do hardly any of my friends. Plenty of us, myself included, would like to. We’re barred from it by the forces of the market and, as such, we’re barred from one of the key buy-ins of municipal politics.
The silver lining here is that among my generation there seems a greater sense of understanding politics as a competition of movements and not a competition of political parties. You’d be hard pressed to find a person my age who is politically active and has a nice thing to say about the Democratic Party, but socialist ideas have never been more popular. Unabashedly left-wing candidates track well. Look at Buffalo, where they’re about to elect a full-blown socialist mayor in India Walton after she unseated a standard neoliberal Democrat in the primary. In Worcester, we’ve got candidates who fit a similar mold but are rightly afraid to say it out loud. But their ranks are bolstered by all the young people politically engaged in organizations like Sunrise Worcester and Defund WPD and the Worcester chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative. Readers of my newsletter I’m afraid to say are sipping that Kool-Aid as well, because baby you better believe that’s what I’m pouring.
It’s in that sense that I see a path forward for greater involvement in municipal politics among young people, and it’s in greater involvement of young people that we can start to change things around here.
So if you’re involved in any of these groups or you’re just paying attention, I think it behooves you to be loud about it. Be obnoxious on Twitter and on Instagram and make sure your less aware friends are at least aware that you’re aware. That’s what it’s going to take to steer this rickety old ship we call Worcester in the right direction come Nov. 2.
If we don’t, and we fail to understand Worcester politics as part of a greater struggle, it’s on us. The other side is chomping at the bit to take it backward.
Stay tuned for the remaining three chapters of my guide to the Worcester elections which will be coming at some point in the next two weeks!! Here’s hoping this tracks and we can pull a few people off the inactive voter rolls. Also can I get a big hell yeah for Chelsea Zona for doing the hilarious and awesome cover art for this story? Check out more of her on Instagram, @chelsea_zona.
If you liked what you just read please consider throwing me a small amount of cash a month for it. Worcester does not get written about in this way short of you ponying up to support it yourself and that’s just the sad truth of local journalism in 2021. Think about it like you’re buying me a beer a month to keep me going :)
I started a Twitch channel the other day with the goal of doing Mystery Science Theater: Worcester City Council edition. Either my computer or internet couldn’t handle it and the stream quality was too poor to make it work so I had to drop it for now. I’m not going to let go of the idea, though. Think it could be really fun. Follow my Twitch channel if you’re a Twitch person and if you’re a Twitch streamer that’s good at all the back-end technical stuff that goes into making a stream good, send me a line? I have questions.
The biggest thing that happened at the City Council this week was Councilor Moe Bergman’s suggestion that some of the COVID relief money coming from the federal government be used to give a $5,000 bonus to “essential” city workers including those in public health, the Department of Public Works and the police. The order was enthusiastically supported by the rest of the council unsurprisingly because, as you just read about, there is an election coming up in a month!! No one wants to be the councilor opposing a fat payout to the most reliable voters in the city. This is an obvious election stunt on Bergman’s part, though I gotta hand it to him, it’s a pretty good one. Say what you want about the man and trust me I have he’s a lot smarter than your average councilor. That sucks because he has horrible politics. But he does know how to keep himself on the board, that’s for sure. It’s my thinking that the Augustus administration is not going to come back with a “yes” or “no” on the bonus idea until well after the election. If they come back before Nov. 2, you gotta start asking yourself what sort of leverage Bergman has on ol Ed. While I think it would be nice for the garbage men and everyone involved in the city’s COVID-related efforts to get a check, I don’t think the cops did anything whatsoever to deserve it. Can’t even get those guys to put a mask on. This money is better spent literally any other way.
I don’t want to give this too much attention but it does kick ass that Aidan Kearney, Holden resident and Turtleboy Sports author and generally hateful weirdo, is dealing with a jilted ex-mistress who is now spreading around a jerk off video he sent her. This jilted ex-lover also happens to be a cop. All I gotta say… for a guy like Kearney this is just poetic justice. For the curious.
I’m a big fan of good writing about cities and this recent essay about the Busch family and St. Louis by Devin Thomas O’Shea checked a ton of boxes for me. It’s about the decadence and collapse of the family who brought you Budweiser but it’s also about the way old money can control a city. Had me thinking hmmmm who is the Busch equivalent in Worcester? Discovered it by way of this TrueAnon interview with the author. TrueAnon rocks btw. Easily my favorite podcast. If anyone has an extra ticket for the upcoming New York or Philly live shows send me a line!!!!
While my copy editor dearest Kathryn was looking at this post I read the story everyone’s been talking about—The Bad Art Friend—and I just gotta say from my perspective there is no ambiguity here. Sonya is a talented and perceptive writer. She did nothing wrong. Dawn is a psycho hose beast. Fight me in the comments.
The Body and BIG/BRAVE put out a collaboration record on Friday that absolutely kicks ass. Oh Sinner is THE track IMO. The combination of folk and industrial music here is really innovative and inspiring. Haven’t been this into a new release in a long time. More pretty singing over heavy, meditative riffs please.