IOP Rates Massachusetts Civic Engagement

Massachusetts scored above the national average in overall civic engagement but experienced drops in voter turnout and other political activity, according to an Institute of Politics report released Wednesday.

“I think this report was definitely a wake-up call for the residents of Massachusetts to get re-engaged in politics in our communities,” said ImeIme A. Umana ’14, principal author of the Massachusetts Civic Health Index.

A team of four Harvard undergraduates from the IOP published the report in collaboration with the National Conference on Citizenship and the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The Index draws on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

The report found that Massachusetts was ranked 11th in the nation for voter turnout. In 2010, 52.2 percent of eligible Massachusetts voted during midterm elections, while the national average was 45.5 percent. This marks a decline from the 2006 midterm election, when Massachusetts had 55.4 percent voter turnout rate.

A particular concern that the findings revealed was the disparity in voter participation among racial groups. Turnout for Massachusetts African Americans and Latinos, at 41.2 percent and 14 percent respectively, lagged behind national data at 44 percent and 31.2 percent.

“There’s a real gap between turnout for Latinos and African Americans compared to white Americans,” said C. M. “Trey” Grayson ’94, director of the IOP. “The Latino population is growing in Massachusetts—if we are not engaging them and they are not turning out the vote, we have a problem.”

An unexpected finding of the report, according to the authors, was the low level of social connectedness among state residents. The study included a variety of activities, ranging from helping out neighbors to attending community meetings, in its definition of social connectedness.

While the state placed 21st in the nation in rate of volunteering, the study ranked Massachusetts 46th among Americans who self-reported helping their neighbors at least a few times a week. Past studies have correlated civic involvement and social connection with lower levels of unemployment, according to Kristen Cambell, chief program officer of the National Conference on Citizenship.

Those involved with the study said they see this as an opportunity for policymakers to refocus on issues of civic engagement.

“There was an impression that Massachusetts citizens were more engaged in their communities and politics,” Grayson said. “What we found was that Massachusetts is above average in a lot of categories, but not a national leader in any of them. It’s not quite as good as you think—there’s some work to do.”

—Staff writer David Song can be reached at davidsong@college.harvard.edu.

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