When the statewide turnout for this fall's municipal elections was announced at an embarrassing 30.67 percent, many attributed it to the freak snowstorm 10 days earlier. Not really.
Turnout in municipal elections has been dropping for two decades, from nearly 55 percent in 1991 steadily down to 36.6 percent in 2009 to this year's anemic number. If the storm was a factor, it wasn't much of one.
Voter turnout in presidential years is much higher, with 78.14 percent of registered voters casting ballots in 2008. What is causing the drop in local elections is both complicated and troubling. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill calls it "a crisis," and she is not wrong. To turn it around, Ms. Merrill faces a twofold challenge.
The first is to make voting less restrictive and open up options such as weekend voting or "no excuse" absentee ballots — letting voters cast votes ahead of time without having to explain why they won't be around on Election Day. Although this would require an amendment to the state Constitution, it may be the easier of the two steps.
The second is to motivate people to participate. This will be more difficult, but it is critically important. Democracy is predicated upon the participation of informed citizens. When voters stay home, they are less likely to get competent or accountable government, which in turn affects the quality of schools, public safety and town services.
A hot local issue, or a compelling candidate, can still get voters out. But it is hard to explain why, to take eastern Connecticut as an example, Hampton and Sprague turned out 63.75 percent and 55.70 percent of their voters, while Sterling, with a turnout belying its name, had only 6.01 percent of its registered voters bother to cast ballots.
Why Is Turnout Trending Down?
Nationwide, mobility and fewer families with children in school leave many people unconnected to their communities. Voters may be influenced by the often mindless trashing of government by some in the media (and a few in politics). Some people may be tied more closely to a social network rather than to their physical communities.
Whatever the reasons, it's time to fight back. Ms. Merrill said the state is one of the most restrictive when it comes to voting. She said she will push for a constitutional amendment that will put these questions before the legislature, where they can be studied and debated.
Such things as online registration and absentee ballots that don't require the voter to be out of town to use should be adopted easily. The state might work up a pilot project on weekend voting, early voting or "voting centers" — regional voting sites that could save towns money.
But when people want to vote, many more of them seem to find a way. So the greater challenge will be motivation.
Civic engagement involves not only voting, but volunteering, giving to charities, working with neighbors. Ms. Merrill, who pushed for civics education as a state legislator, is involved in a state version of a national project to increase civic participation. The effort has produced a report on the state's civic health in 2011 (see http://1.usa.gov/udbPWm).
It shows that Connecticut residents do very well in giving to charities, fairly well in volunteering and voting, not so well in working with neighbors to solve problems. Participation correlates in most categories to wealth, education level and race. This isn't good; the "two Connecticuts" have to merge. Minority communities are growing and must produce many of tomorrow's civic leaders.
The report was introduced in October and was the subject of a November forum at the Old State House. Ms. Merrill hopes to have more such meetings and pursue new avenues of civic preparation.
Good. Civic engagement is a major issue hiding in plain sight, one that needs our attention.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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