In early 2015, a coalition of nonprofit partners representing parks and open space, historic preservation and affordable housing met to discuss a potential ballot measure campaign to pass the Community Preservation Act in the city of Boston. In May 2016, with support from Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the Boston City Council voted 12-1 to send the Community Preservation Act to the November 2016 presidential ballot. The Trust for Public Land co-led the coalition and management of the ballot measure campaign and led fundraising efforts. On November 8, 2016, CPA was adopted overwhelmingly by Boston voters with 73.6 percent support.
In the fall of 2015, the campaign coalition hosted a meeting with Mayor Walsh and shared positive information about a recent public opinion poll that showed strong support for CPA. The Mayor came out in support of the effort, as did 12 of the 13 Boston city councilors. Coalition members identified two Councilors who were especially enthusiastic about passing CPA in Boston: At-Large Councilor Michael Flaherty from South Boston and District 4 Councilor Andrea Campbell from Dorchester. They worked closely with their offices to help draft the CPA Order that would place CPA on Boston’s November 8, 2016 ballot.
That spring, the campaign coalition officially became the “Yes for a Better Boston Committee” (YBB) and launched a “Yes for a Better Boston” web page: yesbetterboston.org, as well as a social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. YBB utilized the messages tested in the 2015 public opinion survey and, based on that information, prepared their outreach and education effort. This included:
- Campaign slogans and logos that appeared on yard and window signs to increase visibility for the campaign.
- Printed palm cards for YBB volunteers to give out at the polls.
- Mailers used for “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts and for a targeted mail campaign.
- Door hangers for educational outreach as part of the door to door canvassing effort.
- Brochures and campaign materials (in five languages!) used by volunteer coalition members and paid field organizers in outreach efforts at meetings, parades, festivals, conferences, etc.
An opinion poll showed that transparency and accountability were critical to Boston voters. YBB also knew from polling that Boston voters were generally comfortable with the “price point” for CPA. With this in mind, the Boston Assessing Department created an online calculator that enabled any property owner in Boston to type their address to calculate their annual property tax surcharge if CPA passed.
YBB’s campaign consultant helped create and manage much of the campaign communications, including content for printed collateral as well as a web site, social media, talking points, emails, fundraising appeals, “vote yes” mail, etc.
The campaign benefited from positive media coverage including several supportive editorials and columns in the Boston Globe, a strong opinion from the former President of the Mass Taxpayer’s Foundation in Commonwealth Magazine, and additional stories, editorials, and op-eds in weeklies and radio interviews. YBB also paid for advertisements in weekly neighborhood newspapers.
While working to get CPA on the ballot, YBB simultaneously mapped out a robust campaign plan, putting together a steering committee that met weekly with the campaign team. They also arranged meetings with with elected officials, nonprofits, business leaders and associations, and foundations and potential donors to raise funds, grow the coalition, and recruit volunteers.
YBB received nearly 200 endorsements from a broad and diverse list of state and local government officials, ward committees, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, small and large businesses and associations, as well as nontraditional stakeholders such as religious organizations, faith leaders, labor unions and civic organizations.
At every election, there are voters who know little or nothing about a ballot question until they enter the ballot box, so easy-to-understand ballot language is critical to a measure’s success. With this in mind, as soon as the CPA Boston Order was enacted in May, the campaign drafted clear CPA ballot language that utilized both polled messages as well as longer, more technical ballot language that had already been approved by most cities and towns that had passed CPA.
For the first time, the state of Massachusetts opened polls for early voting from October 24 to November 4. During early voting, YBB mailed two educational pieces to let voters know about early voting, how to register, and where they could vote. They also had field staff and volunteers working at every early vote poll location.
As Election Day neared, YBB made full use of campaign staff and coalition members to help get out the vote by persuading voters to get to the polls to vote “yes” on Question 5. Efforts by the campaign to increase voter turnout included paid advertisements in local weekly newspapers, community forums and special events, op-eds, and editorials. Additionally, thousands of door hangers were used in door-to-door canvassing and two pieces of 8x10 “vote yes” mail were sent to 75,000 targeted households.
To prepare for Election Day, the campaign educated volunteers not only about CPA program itself, but also about how to directly engage voters at the polls on Election Day. Instead of merely holding signs, every volunteer was provided with a lanyard with “Vote Yes on 5” messaging so they could use their free hands to distribute palm cards and urge voters to find Question 5 on the last page/back of their ballot.
During the October 24 to November 4 early voting period, over one million ballots were cast across the state (22 percent of all registered voters). In Boston, early voter turnout was lower. Of the 413,670 registered voters, 47,845 of all voters (11.5%) took advantage of early voting. In total, 180,205 Boston voters said “yes” on Question 5, and only 64,148 voted, “no.” Question 5 won with 73.6 percent of the vote.
Lessons Learned and Advice for Future Campaigns
- Affordability. The CPA proposal in Boston was modest – a property tax surcharge of just one percent - costing the average home owner about $24 per year, with exemptions for low income families, individuals and seniors.
- Lack of Opposition. Influential business leaders and public officials, including the Mayor, were vital in thwarting any potential organized opposition.
- Timing. The Secretary of State reported that voter turnout was at a record high during the 2016 presidential election. High voter turnout generates support from more progressive voters. In fact, including the November 2016 election results from communities around Massachusetts, 83 percent of all CPA measures are adopted at presidential elections, when voter turnout is at its highest.
- Brand. In 2016, prior to the November 8 election, 161 (46 percent) of the state’s municipalities had adopted CPA, including several cities in Greater Boston. CPA was tried and tested, and had proven so popular that no city or town in Massachusetts had ever repealed it. Many corporate CEOs that work in Boston live in a community that has adopted CPA and benefited from CPA’s popular projects.
- Government Support. Mayor Walsh hosted several public events that were covered by the press, and recorded two robocalls. He was YBB’s most important ambassador, as polls showed that Mayor Walsh is a popular and trusted leader in Boston.
- Messaging. In 2016, Boston was ranked by the Brookings Institution as #1 out of the nation’s 100 biggest cities for income inequality. Housing prices are skyrocketing across the City. Our September 2015 poll showed that Boston voters were more concerned about the housing crises, than about parks and historic preservation. YBB’s campaign focused successfully on the need to create new affordable homes as Boston grows and prospers - a message that appealed to voters.
- Transparency and Accountability. The City launched its online calculator early in the campaign so voters could clearly understand how much CPA would cost them in increased property taxes.The YBB message was consistent, open, and direct, assuring voters that CPA implementation would be a credible process. Spending decisions would be made by residents and there would be full public disclosure of the spending.
- Positive Media Coverage. YBB capitalized on received excellent earned media coverage. The success was helped by YBB’s consultant’s campaign experience, political expertise, talent, and professionalism.
- Grassroots Outreach. The Yes for a Better Boston steering committee, coalition members, and paid field staff helped generate nearly 200 endorsements. Hundreds of volunteers made thousands of phone calls to registered voters, canvassed door-to-door, hosted events, raised funds, and turned out to work the polls. Grassroots efforts made all the difference!
The Boston campaign was an outstanding win due to committed leadership, dedicated volunteers, consistent messaging, and effective fundraising efforts. It resulted in a unified community effort and Boston CPA supporters are justifiably very proud of their success.