There’s No Such Thing As ‘Minority Voting’ in Boston

The broad analyses miss some actually interesting questions—like what motivates black voters in primaries.

With all due respect to Maurice Cunningham, and Larry DiCara and James Sutherland, there is way too much analysis of “minority” (or, in the lexicon I personally object to, “of color”) voting in Boston. There is very little in common between, say, the black residents of lower Roxbury and the Hispanic residents of East Boston, and lumping them together in broad discussion is counter-productive.

One of the things missed by this error is the very interesting question of what motivates Boston’s black voters to come to the polls in primaries (and non-partisan municipal preliminaries)—something of great import for September’s mayoral prelim.

General elections are another matter—one with much more in common with other city minorities, in which the issue is usually how many will turn out to vote for the candidate everybody knows they will vote for.

But primaries and prelims are another story. To look at it, let’s look at 62 majority-black precincts in Boston. Not majority-minority; majority black. (I got these from 2010 US Census data for ages 18+. Redistricting maven State Rep. Mike Moran has a list of 61, which I think uses all age groups. Close enough either way.) Roughly three-quarters of Boston’s voting-age black residents live in those precincts. And, while they are far from 100 percent black, a lot of the non-black residents are in multi-racial families, or certainly interact in heavily black circles.

In those 62 precincts, there’s a fascinating difference between the 2005 municipal preliminary and the 2006 state primary. (All these are from my own tallies of official city data, so I apologize in advance for any errors.)

In that 2006 primary, those 62 precincts accounted for 22 percent of the citywide vote: 18,894 of 86,001 ballots cast.

A year earlier, the same precincts accounted for just 16 percent of the city-wide vote: 6,578 of 40,802 ballots cast.

In 2006, of course, Deval Patrick was a serious contender to become the state’s first black governor. Those 62 precincts gave a whopping 88 percent of their votes to Patrick; he got 51 percent in the rest of the city.

In 2005 there was no mayoral prelim, and the at-large election for city council included no serious black candidates with any hope of getting elected at-large. Here are the votes in those 62 majority-black precincts (by my tally from city stats), with the city-wide order of finish in parentheses (voters could choose up to four):

1. Felix D. Arroyo 3,870 (2)

2. Sam Yoon 2,418 (5)

3. Roy Owens 2,175 (11)

4. Althea Garrison 1,924 (9)

5. Michael Flaherty 1,596 (1)

6. Patricia White 1,453 (6)

7. Stephen Murphy 1,425 (4)

8. Matt O’Malley 1,362 (7)

9. John Connolly 1,232 (3)

10. Ed Flynn 1,026 (8)

Arroyo (the father) was already on the council and well-known in the city. Sam Yoon, who was a serious, well-funded rising-star candidate and not white, got tossed a vote by just over one-third of voters in those precincts, barely edging the two fringe black candidates. And then the various white candidates. That pattern has pretty much repeated itself since.

In the 2008 Presidential primary, for example, those precincts accounted for 21 percent of the citywide vote, and gave Barack Obama the overwhelming majority over Hillary Clinton.

In the 2009 municipal prelim—between three white guys and Yoon—the Menino machine (and genuine popularity) helped get the turnout in those 62 precincts up to 20 percent of the citywide vote, with the bulk going to Menino.

A few months later, in the December 2009 special US Senate primary between Capuano, Coakley, Khazei, and Pagliuca, those precincts accounted for just 15 percent of the vote, and split that small share (roughly half to Capuano and one-third to Coakley).

Just a couple of months ago, 28 of those 62 majority-black precincts took part in the special election primary for state senate—and gave 86 percent of their votes to Linda Dorcena Forry, with enough turnout to swing the election to her.

The patterns are fascinating, but the conclusions are not self-evident. I can tell you what I think it means.

I think that when Boston’s black voters have a candidate who they think matters to them in the field, they will come out and vote en bloc to help get that candidate through the primary/prelim. That mostly means a black candidate with a legitimate chance to win the office, or secondarily a non-black candidate with a well-established record of service to the community (ie, Menino).

In the absence of such a candidate, Boston’s black voters are likely to sit it out. Those who show up will split their votes, roughly in the order of 1) black candidates with some legitimacy; 2) other non-white candidates with a legitimate chance; 3) black candidates with no chance at all; 3) white candidates they know and don’t actively dislike.

There does seem to be some evidence, however, that voter interest and GOTV infrastructure has built up now to the point where it won’t take a “special” candidate like Deval or Barack to drive turnout, with odd-timed special elections perhaps remaining only as anomalies. I’m still cautious on that, but it’s not impossible.

The other tough question is what it takes to become a “special” candidate pushing up that turnout rate. Is it necessarily a charismatic figure, like Patrick or Forry? Or is it enough to be a legitimate, credible black candidate for a significant office? And what happens if there are multiple credible black candidates?

And, if there is no credible black candidate to rally around, have things changed enough that white candidates can vie for a significant number of votes—or is it not worth their effort as was the case in that 2005 prelim?