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City Council considers moving voting day to Saturdays

John C. Drake // Published April 3, 2008 in Bosten Globe
Stung by markedly low voter turnout in last November's city election, the City Council is considering a proposal to move voting day from Tuesday to Saturday as a way to boost participation in time for the 2009 mayoral election.

Such a move would make it easier on working families to exercise their civic duty, said the proposal's sponsor, Councilor John Tobin.

"You have this enormous attention to the presidential race and the governor's race, and it doesn't seem to translate down to the municipal level," Tobin said. "I can't imagine there are people calling Deval Patrick to get their street lights turned on."

But a voter advocate said that moving election day to the weekend could have little impact and that the real reason for the dismal 13.6 percent turnout in the November election was a lackluster race that failed to excite voters.

High turnout in the recent presidential primary shows people are willing to vote on Tuesdays, said Avi Green, executive director of the voter advocacy group MassVOTE. Saturday elections pose their own problems, because Jews and other members of religions that observe a Saturday Sabbath might not show up, he said.

Tobin's proposal is the third electoral reform idea floated this year by the West Roxbury councilor, who has made no secret of his mayoral ambitions. He has also called for increasing councilor terms from two years to four to coincide with mayoral elections and limiting the mayor and councilors to three terms.

In the last city election Nov. 6, four of the nine district seats, plus the four at-large seats, were contested. Councilor Felix D. Arroyo lost his at-large seat to John Connolly.

"I was elected in an historically low turnout election; I'm not proud of that," Connolly said yesterday, adding that he supports any idea to increase turnout.

In contrast, turnout in the 2006 gubernatorial election exceeded 55 percent in Boston, and nearly 40 percent of Boston voters participated in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries on Feb. 5.

"The people of Boston did not substantially change, nor did the city substantially change in the three months from November to February," said Green. "So what changed? People felt there was a competitive election."

Green said that moving elections to Saturday might have merit, but that officials should not expect the move to cure voter apathy.

Councilors and advocates said some accommodation would have to be made for people whose religion forbids them from voting on the Sabbath.

"Obviously, if Saturday was the only day that people could vote in the city, that would be problematic for many people in the Jewish community who wouldn't be able to vote," said Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. "There would be concern, just as there would be if it was on Sunday morning."

Councilor Robert Consalvo proposed adding an additional day before a Saturday election during which one polling place in each district would be open.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin has overseen the city's Elections Department since widespread problems were reported with the city's handling of the 2006 election.

Galvin's spokesman, Brian McNiff, said Galvin would not comment on the idea before seeing the proposal. He said the change would have to be presented as a home-rule petition to the Legislature.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino would support Saturday voting, said his spokeswoman, Dorothy Joyce. She said Menino filed state legislation for expanded early voting in January 2007.

"While we think that Saturdays are convenient for people, we still think there's a need for early voting," she said.

State Representative Steven M. Walsh, Democrat of Lynn and sponsor of the early voting bill, said it was sent for study, essentially killing the measure for this legislative session, because lawmakers wanted to focus on a bill allowing same-day registration.

John C. Drake can be reached at [email protected]