The city of Attleboro in Massachusetts recently held a special election to replace former mayor Paul Heroux, who had stepped down after being elected as Bristol County sheriff. The election marked the first time in 40 years that no incumbent mayor was on the ballot. However, voter turnout was less than 17%, with fewer than 6,000 of the city’s nearly 33,000 eligible voters showing up to cast a ballot. Despite the low numbers, Cathleen DeSimone won the race by fewer than 400 votes.
Low voter engagement in city politics is not limited to Attleboro, as many cities across Bristol County and Massachusetts have also experienced this issue. During the last municipal election cycle in 2021, voter turnout was just 24% in Fall River, 19% in Taunton, and only 11% in New Bedford. Experts have attributed the problem to the declining circulation of local newspapers, social media’s focus on national politics, and a lack of competition for local elected offices. The United States also has an unusually large number of elections compared to other countries.
Nonpartisan advocacy group MassVOTE believes that one solution to the voter turnout problem is to move municipal elections to even-numbered years, so voters choose their mayors, City Councils, and School Committees on the same day that they vote for president or governor. Massachusetts has shown that doing so can significantly increase voter turnout, which can be seen in the success of California’s 2015 law requiring municipalities to move their local elections from odd years to even years if voter turnout is consistently lower than it is for even-year general elections.
Mayors in Bristol County cities have mixed reactions to the idea of changing the election schedule. However, the winner of Attleboro’s recent special election, Cathleen DeSimone, who is now in office as mayor, expressed openness to the idea. During a period in the middle of the last century, Attleboro held municipal elections in even-numbered years before switching to odd years in 1949. DeSimone believes switching to even-year elections would increase voter turnout and save the city money, but ultimately feels the decision should be left to the voters.