At the Polls, Usual Mix Of Apathy and Interest

Matthew R. Lincoln

Polling booths stand empty at the Quincy House polling station.

At one o’clock yesterday afternoon, Bill Willard was busy tinkering with a crossword puzzle. Willard, the warden at Cambridge’s Ward 7-3 polling station in Gund Hall, said traffic was unexpectedly light.

“There’s not much going on here,” he said.

But by 10 p.m., election officials at the tabulation center near City Hall were somewhat more enthusiastic about the turnout at yesterday’s primary elections.

The primaries brought out 18,342 voters in the City of Cambridge, roughly 32 percent of the city’s total number of registered voters—in line with the state-wide average predicted by officials earlier in the week.

“Historically and realistically, this is a pretty healthy showing, largely due to the very contested races in Cambridge,” said Cambridge Election Commissioner Wayne A. “Rusty” Drugan.

At stake yesterday were two key state-wide races—the Democratic nomination for governor and the lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket.

Cambridge also decided a hotly contested state senate race between former Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio and State Representative Jarrett T. Barrios ’90-’91.

State-wide races were the focus of the most expensive primary season in Massachusetts history. The fierce struggle between State Treasurer Shannon P. O’Brien, former state legislator Warren E. Tolman, State Senate President Thomas F. Birmingham ’72 and former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich helped to fuel a record $20 million campaign spending spree.

“The primary was my big draw, having a bunch of great Democratic candidates, and pretty much everyone else [on the ballot] is running unopposed,” said a tutor from Lowell House, who would not give her name, as she voted at Quincy House. “The governor is a pretty important officer in the state.”

“Many people are excited to get rid of [Acting Gov.] Jane Swift,” said Richard Harding Sr., a warden at the Quincy House polling place. “A lot of people disliked her, and most others didn’t have an opinion.”

But not even the money and attention lavished on the campaigns in recent weeks could raise voter turnout numbers at local polling places.

Officials at Gund and Quincy estimated that Harvard students accounted for about half the voters in those wards. But Harding said he considers these students generally unopinionated and uninformed about local politics.

“When you’re from another city, the issues here aren’t going to be a big deal,” he said. “But even though they may not know what they’re doing, it’s good they’re taking advantage of the democratic process.”

“I’ve always voted, just because it’s so important,” said Laure De Vulpillieres ’02 outside the polling station on Mount Auburn Street where students in Dunster House, Mather House and the Dewolfe apartments vote.

Among the Democratic candidates for governor, she said Reich had impressed her with an appearance in her religion class during the early days of his campaign last spring.

Democratic voter Previn Warren ’04 said he was also impressed by Reich’s heavy campaigning at Harvard but worried that low student turnout would hurt his chances.

“He was depending on student support, but this isn’t support at all,” he said.

Only a handful of students showed up over the course of the day at the Mount Auburn polling place, where election workers told Warren he was still one of a very few Harvard voters to cast his ballot.

“It was a campaign full of bickering and contention, and I’m only the fourth person from Mather House to vote today,” he said. “It must be that general Harvard apathy.”

Local political observer Glenn S. Koocher ’71 said student voter turnout is typically low and this year’s numbers were not unusual.

“Students have historically turned out strongly only in presidential races, or when issues like rent control are at stake,” he said. “It’s really hard to get students interested in a local race, and nobody really knows how.”

—Staff writer Alexander L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.