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Only 33.55 percent of eligible Nutmeg State voters participated in last month’s election, according to recently released data from Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill.

In November, Connecticut voters headed to the polls to choose mayors and other municipal officials in New Haven, Hartford, Bridgeport and other cities and towns throughout the state. Despite many close races and increased political energy since the 2016 election, only about a third of Nutmeg voters chose to cast a vote. Merrill’s office confirmed to the News that the turnout was about what their office expected. In odd-numbered years without any federal or statewide races, Connecticut typically sees turnout around 30 percent.

“Municipal elections generally see lower turnout by virtue of the fact that they’re for municipal seats,” Stephanie Sponzo, a spokesperson for Merrill, told the News in an interview. “The campaigns are smaller, the towns are smaller and generally people are more aware of national and statewide races because those see more media coverage.”

Despite the seemingly low turnout, 2019 actually saw a slightly higher portion of participation than 2017, when just 30 percent of Nutmeg voters cast a ballot, according to Merrill’s website. 2017 and 2019 each saw voting rates about half as high as 2018, when 65 percent of Connecticut voters participated in an election that included a gubernatorial and U.S. Senate race in the state. In 2016, the year of the last presidential election, the voter turnout rate was almost 77 percent according to the Office of the Secretary of State’s website.

Despite expecting the low turnout numbers, Sponzo told the News that Merrill and her team continue to look for ways to incentivize voting and to make it easier for all Connecticut residents to cast a ballot.

“We’re always working to make voting as convenient and as easy as possible,” Sponzo said. “That goes for federal, statewide and municipal elections. We do our best to get the word out about municipal elections.”

In the last state legislative session, which ended in June, Sponzo told the News that Merrill pushed for a bill that would have introduced a constitutional amendment to allow for early voting in Connecticut. Currently, 39 states allow for some form of voting before election day, but the Nutmeg State does not. The bill passed both chambers but failed to earn a supermajority of votes in the Senate. The bill will need to pass both chambers again in 2021 before it can be sent to all voters as a referendum question. It would then require support from at least half of Connecticut’s voters in order for the constitution to be amended.

In 2019, New Haven saw a turnout rate even lower than the state average, at 29.58 percent. Yet the Elm City did better than Connecticut’s most populous city and its capital — Bridgeport and Hartford saw participation rates of 21.98 and 18.14 percent, respectively.

Similar to Sponzo, New Haven Mayor-elect Justin Elicker told the News that turnout rates can always be higher, and voting can always be made easier.

“Turnout can always be better,” Elicker said. “When you consider the number of people that can vote, and the number that do, it’s an indication that people think their vote doesn’t matter. We need to do work to make people feel a part of the process.”

Elicker told the News that it is important for schools to teach civic engagement so that students can begin understanding the importance of their participation in democracy from a young age.

He also said that, during his campaign, he focused on transparency, which he believes is currently missing from City Hall. By building trust with the community and allowing them to see the work that city officials are doing, Elicker said he believes voter turnout can increase.

“One of the most important things I have been focusing on … is making sure that residents feel more heard and engaged in decisions made by the government,” Elicker said. “People think decision-makers are a small group of uninterested people.”

Elicker told the News that there has been some discussion in Connecticut of moving municipal elections to even-numbered years. When there are no statewide or federal elections on the ballot, voters are less likely to know there is an upcoming election or to feel incentivized to participate. By moving municipal elections to even-numbered years, Elicker argued, there would be more noise around the elections, more media coverage and more money spent to increase awareness and turnout. He also claimed it could save the state and city money by consolidating the two separate election days.

The 2020 general election is on Nov. 3.

Emmett Schell | emmett.shell@yale.edu