Editorial: Preliminary thoughts

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Worcester holds its preliminary election Tuesday, Sept. 8.

The field of 16 at-large candidates for City Council will be pared to 12. In addition, the field for the District 2 City Council seat will be halved to two.

If history is any indication, the outcome will hinge on voter turnout and that turnout figures to be low. The 2013 general election attracted only 14.4 percent of registered voters. Tuesday’s is a primary election, and it is being held the day after a long weekend.

Many theories exists as to why voter turnout in municipal elections is historically low and dropping. They range from reasonable to conspiratorial.

In July, at the city’s Dialogues on Race, we heard multiple times that “the future belongs to those who show up.”

So the question remains, “Why do people let others choose who leads them?”


At first, those words, in that setting, sounded like victim-blaming. Upon closer examination, they are anything but.

There is an election held every two years and people will be elected. Those facts don’t change. It would stand to reason that people, especially those who feel disenfranchised, would vote.

So the question remains, “Why do people let others choose who leads them?”

In a 1968 article in The American Political Science Review, “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting,” William H. Riker and Peter C. Ordeshook presented an equation they said could predict if someone would vote.

The variables are the differential benefit the voter receives if his or her candidate wins, the probability that the citizen’s vote results in their candidate’s winning, the cost (or effort) it takes to vote, and the satisfaction one receives from voting.

If the result of the equation is greater than 0, the theory states, it is reasonable the person will vote. Conversely, a result less than or equal to 0 means it is not reasonable that one will vote.

Under this theory, more than 85 percent of registered voters in Worcester had a result of less than or equal to 0 in the 2013 general election.

How can this be?

Let us assume an extreme position that no one feels a sense of satisfaction from voting. We acknowledge there is a cost to voting, even if it is only time, or maybe bus fare.

Because a municipal election affects only Worcester, and because turnout is historically lower than statewide or national elections, the probability of one’s vote influencing an election goes up.

If all these factors are true, it means that to a vast majority of voters, the difference in who wins and who loses means less to them than saving a few minutes on one Tuesday every two years — two Tuesdays if there’s a primary.

The prospect of this is troubling, deeply troubling.

We look at the field of candidates and can see enormous difference in how the City Council would function as a result of the election, how it would direct the city manager and work with the School Committee.

Our hope is that this lack of difference is a result of a lack of knowledge of the candidates and their positions. This can be addressed, but unfortunately not before Tuesday.

(We note a similar conclusion was reached by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau  in a report released in April.)

The best we can hope for at this late date is that those for whom the difference is tangible, the benefit clear, and the satisfaction present, vote in the best interest of the city.

The equation was R=BP-C+D, where R is the reward a voter receives, B is the benefit the voter receives, P is the probability that citizen’s vote results in their candidate winning, C is the cost (or effort) it takes to vote, and D is the satisfaction one receives from voting.

When R is greater than 0, it is “reasonable” that citizen will vote; when it’s less than or equal to 0, it is not “reasonable” to vote.

If you want an interesting but different take on the 2013 election and Tuesday’s primary, we recommend Nicole Apostola’s posts here and here.

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