Aside from sending longtime Congressman Ed Markey to the U.S. Senate, Tuesday’s special state election should carry a number of lessons for state and local election officials.
Chief among those is that, if we are going to have a special election — and if we are legitimately hoping for a good turnout, the best way to ensure a fair choice — don’t have it in the summer. With schools and colleges out for the summer — and with a number of other distractions, ranging from a late June heat wave to the Bruins suddenly-aborted run for the Stanley Cup — candidates’ positions and other aspects of the campaign largely fell on deaf ears, and the roughly 30 percent statewide turnout proved to be a 30-year low, especially compared to the 54 percent who went to the polls in the Scott Brown-Martha Coakley special Senate race in January 2010.
But town officials in Manchester made an important point of their own Tuesday, when the Senate race no doubt helped draw a solid turnout for an otherwise non-descript pair of local financial referendum questions. And the presence of the two ballot questions may have helped the town’s Cape Ann-high turnout of 39 percent as well.
The Manchester questions were important — they asked voters to approve excluding the cost of borrowing to pay off the cost of two separate beach seawall and harbor improvement projects from the Proposition 2 1/2 tax cap limits, to the tune of more than $600,000 overall. And voters made the right calls by giving their emphatic approvals to both (see news story, Page 1).
But beyond that, the turnout for the combined election drew a voter turnout that probably would have been significantly lower if the questions were the only show at the polls.
Indeed, it’s hard not to think of how Gloucester — which drew a Tuesday turnout of 26.97 percent — could have drawn more voters and gotten some truly meaningful input if it could have found a way to include two important referendum questions in its special election Tuesday as well. Those could have been one on the future of the former Fuller School building, and the other, more importantly, on the city’s pursuit of a new school building for West Parish — a project that, on its current course, could only face City Council approval and never face a voters’ referendum at all.
Timing is everything, and the timing of the special election — while far from ideal on the state level – provided an ideal forum for Manchester officials to add on their debt override questions. But in doing so, they also set the stage for drawing a good local special election turnout, and one that assured all residents the voters’ decision is very credible.
That, after all, is what elections should be all about, and it’s a format all municipal and state officials should keep in mind and seek to facilitate for the future.