Late yesterday afternoon I traveled to Middlesex Community College for a presentation on a study on “voter participation demographics in Lowell, Massachusetts” conducted by Professor Marcos Luna and his graduate students in the Department of Geography at Salem State University (the full study is available HERE). Luna was attracted to Lowell through the efforts of One Lowell and its Executive Director, Victoria Fahlberg (for whom last night’s event may have been her last official act at One Lowell since she recently announced her departure from the organization). Fahlberg and other politically-aware Lowellians supplied Luna with historic voter data which Luna blended with information from the 2000 US census (the most recent one available) and GIS technology. The term “GIS” stands for Geographic Information System which is software that allows the user to display data on maps.
The goal of the study was to “look at geographic patterns of voter participation over time.” The Salem State team also looked for “demographic factors that could be predictive” of future voter participation. The higher the percentage of foreign born residents or “linguistically isolated” households (i.e., no one in the house speaks English), the lower the rate of voting. The higher the education and income, the higher the rate of voting. While these may not be startling revelations to anyone who follows Lowell politics, this study has great value because it moves beyond “gut feeling” and reaches the “quantifiable evidence” stage.
There was one revelation that surprised me: Length of residency in a particular area had the strongest correlation to voter participation. Put another way, the longer people stayed in the same neighborhood, the more likely they were to vote. And, this held true whether they were home owners or renters. I found this particularly important because if you speak with educators, they will tell you that children who stay in the same schools over long stretches of time outperform those who move frequently. By shaping our housing policy to emphasize “tenure” at an address therefore, we might be able to improve academic performance and voter participation at the same time.
When asked what further information he would add to the study if he had unlimited resources, Professor Luna said that he’d employ a large team of canvassers to go into the neighborhoods with a survey and obtain information directly from residents that would buttress these findings. But he emphasized that such an undertaking should not be the exclusive domain of university researchers who tend to “parachute into the community, conduct their research, then leave.” Rather, it should be a team effort using the expertise of the academics combined with the passion and connectedness of residents of the community. Hopefully last evening’s presentation will mark the beginning of such an effort by Lowell residents.