MIT precincts see significant voter increase in 2017 local elections

MITVote2017 formed to engage students in politics

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Voter turnout in Cambridge in the 2017 local elections.
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Winners of each precinct in the 2017 Cambridge city council elections.
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Percentage increase of voter turnout by precinct from 2015 to 2017.
Davi Da Silva
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Number of ballots cast across MIT campus in the 2017 Cambridge elections.
Davi Da Silva

Since the 2016 presidential election, there has been a rise in political activity at MIT. Some of the initiatives, like Solidarity MIT, the MIT Women’s March Liaisons, and the Graduate Student Council’s 's “Call Your Congressman” campaign, oppose specific Republican-backed initiatives in government. Other efforts, like the student-run MITVote2017, strive to increase student participation in government without an official stance on policy issues.

In November 2017, Cambridge held City Council and school board elections. These local elections typically have lower overall turnout and dramatically lower student turnout than the well-publicized presidential elections. Some students saw this election as an opportunity to engage the student body in local politics and formed MITVote2017. The group consisted of approximately ten active organizers, as well as graduate and undergraduate liaisons who helped spread information to departments and dorms.

Leading up to the election, MITVote2017 put up posters with graphs highlighting the lack of student representation in Cambridge local elections. It organized voter registration drives at MIT libraries and broadcasted information about the polling locations and candidates, in order to lower potential voting barriers for students. On election day, MITVote2017 ran a booth to educate voters about the candidates and the ranked choice voting process.

After the election, Davi da Silva G, the chair of MITVote2017, analyzed the change in voter turnout from the 2015 local election to gauge the effectiveness of MITVote2017's work.

In Cambridge as a whole, the number of voters increased by 40%, from about 16,000 in 2015 to about 22,500 in 2017. For voters under 30, the turnout more than doubled.

The Cambridge precincts with the largest increases in voter turnout were the two that encompass most of MIT’s residence halls, according to da Silva. Precinct 2-2, which includes west campus dorms, experienced a 250% increase. Precinct 2-3, which includes East Campus, 70 Amherst, Eastgate, and non-student housing, experienced an 85% increase.

When asked if the increase in the number of voters was due to MITVote2017, da Silva wrote in an email to The Tech, "As with most social science observations, it's tricky to prove causality. But given the trends ... we're fairly confident in the impact of our work.”

Harvard student Nadya Okamoto’s ’20 run for City Council may have also affected voter turnout. Okamoto obtained the most first choice rankings of any candidate in the MIT precincts 2-2 and 2-3 and Harvard precinct 8-3.

However, MIT students were still greatly underrepresented. MIT precincts 2-2 and 2-3, along with Harvard precincts 7-3 and 8-3, had the four lowest voter turnout rates in Cambridge.  In the 2017 election, more retirees voted than students, despite there being four times as many students in the Cambridge voter database.

Da Silva also broke down the data by living group. Among MIT undergraduate dorms in Cambridge, East Campus had the most voters (57), followed by Simmons (33), and Burton-Conner (30). (This translates to 16% of students at East Campus voting, 10% of Simmons, and 9% of Burton-Conner, based on dorm capacity.) Graduate dorms generally had lower turnouts, with Westgate topping the list at 23 voters, followed by Sidney-Pacific with 14.

For the next election, MITVote2017 plans to lead more initiatives, such as a dorm competition to encourage voter turnout.