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Where Were The Voters?

Poor Turnout: Candidates Turned Out In Droves Too Bad The Voting Public Didn't

Hartford Courant editorial

August 11, 2010

The big winners in Tuesday's primary elections were the political party insiders. Voters followed their lead and chose convention-endorsed Democratic and Republican nominees for statewide office.

Although many of those winners were The Courant's endorsed candidates too, we would have liked to see larger numbers of voters weighing in on the choices. That would have indicated that more than just the party faithful showed up at the polls.

Average voter turnout hovered around 20 percent Tuesday, according to Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. With so many open seats in Connecticut U.S. Senate, governor, secretary of the state, attorney general, comptroller, and a slew of probate court judgeships, among others you'd think there would have been greater voter interest.

After all, the number of primary races in Connecticut was at a historic high Tuesday. If only voter turnout had been.

More Contests Than Ever

Unlike voters, candidates turned out in droves to be on Tuesday's ballot, in part because of the Citizens' Election Fund, which provides some public financing for those who qualify. This was the first year that candidates for statewide office could qualify under the program.

There were 44 state and federal primaries on Tuesday, the most since primaries began in the 1970s. (Before primaries, major-party candidates were simply chosen at party conventions.) This year saw the largest number of primary contests for state House and Senate seats in a dozen years. The consolidation of 117 probate court districts into 54 meant many sitting judges were running against each other for the first time.

So this primary election should have been the most exciting at the local level in years.

So much for that presumption.

Ms. Bysiewicz had predicted turnout would be higher for this primary than in August 2006, when the contest between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont for U.S. Senate drew 43 percent of eligible voters, and almost as high as in the 2008 presidential primary, in which more than 53 percent of eligible voters participated.

But so many polling places reported poor turnout that by Tuesday afternoon that Ms. Bysiewicz revised her optimistic prediction of nearly 50 percent of eligible voters going to the polls to 30 percent at most in some towns.

Even that may have been charitable.

August Isn't To Blame

Many have decried midsummer primaries as badly timed. But unlike Connecticut, Colorado's primary Tuesday saw record turnout because voting there is mostly by mail, to save costs.

The incomparable blogger Chris Bigelow, who researched Connecticut primaries in June 2009, wrote back then that August primaries were historically no worse at attracting voters than September ones.

The first primaries, in August 1970, had turnouts of at least 33 percent of eligible voters. September primaries, held from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, never reached those heights. Then, in August 2006, the Lamont-Lieberman race drew 43 percent of Democratic voters. In 2008, turnout for the Democratic presidential primary was 53 percent.

This year's turnout might have been much higher if Connecticut had early voting, Election Day registration and other initiatives that the higher-turnout states had.

But a pilot program to try out Election Day registration didn't make it through the legislature this year which is a shame, because it might have catapulted Connecticut into the top ranks of voter activity. Turnout is higher in states with same-day registration, such as Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

New voting technology makes such advances in democracy safe: In Connecticut, all town and city registrars are hooked into the state's voter registration database so that fraud can be quickly detected. There's really no excuse not to open the primaries to more voters.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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