Southeastern CT sees voter registration surge

August 17, 2018

Reflecting a statewide trend, new voter registrations in southeastern Connecticut have spiked dramatically in the current midterm cycle.

Across 13 local municipalities, the number of new voter registrations from Nov. 9, 2016, through July 31 of this year increased 180 percent from the same period in the last midterm cycle, from 2012 to 2014. That’s compared to an average increase of only 63 percent in these towns in the midterm cycle before that.

The statewide increase in registrations was more than 150 percent this midterm cycle.

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said statewide turnout for Tuesday’s primary was about 30 percent, compared to a typical midterm turnout of about 25 percent.

The Day analyzed town-by-town voter registration data Merrill’s office provided for equivalent parts of the past three midterm cycles: Nov. 5, 2008, through July 31, 2010; Nov. 7, 2012, through July 31, 2014; and Nov. 9, 2016, through July 31, 2018.

The local towns that saw the largest increases in the number of new registrations were Old Lyme, Groton and Waterford. No town saw a decrease; the smallest increase was 93 percent, in North Stonington.

Compared to the overall local average of a 180 percent increase in registrations, there was a 246 percent increase among those ages 18 to 25. East Lyme saw the largest increase, with the number of new registrations in this age category rising from 32 to 184.

So what is driving the surge in voter registrations?

“Obviously the 2016 [election] was a very galvanizing election, and I think it’s too simple to say the Trump effect,” Merrill said. She added, “I think there just is a renewed interest in politics in general.”

And then there’s the Malloy effect: The governor earlier this year polled as less popular than Trump in Connecticut.

University of Connecticut political science professor Ronald Schurin noted that the media outlets that appeal to young voters — whether online or legacy media — are spending more time dealing with political issues than they have in the past.

Registrations increased relatively evenly across political parties, though some municipalities were exceptions. While more people registered as Democrats than Republicans in New London and Norwich, Republican registrations saw a greater percent increase. But in East Lyme, Democratic registrations increased a higher rate than Republican ones.

In each of the past three midterm cycles, regardless of town or age group, there was great consistency in the ranking of new registrations from most to least popular: unaffiliated, Democratic, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Green, Working Families.

One notable exception is that in each of the past three cycles, New London residents over age 65 were more likely to register as Democratic than unaffiliated.

Among different age groups over the years, there were several instances in which residents of Old Lyme, East Lyme, Waterford, Preston and North Stonington were more likely to register as Republican than Democrat.

In Old Lyme, new Republican registrations from November 2016 through this July were higher than Democratic registrations among anyone 26 or older.

A trend that has remained consistent is that unaffiliated is the largest share of new registrations among those ages 18 to 25.

From 2016 to 2018, for example, 57.5 percent of new registrations for this age group across the 13 towns were unaffiliated. That’s compared to 43.96 percent unaffiliated among those over 65.

The overall share of new registrations that were unaffiliated was highest in the current midterm cycle, a fact that surprised Schurin.

“There were two deeply contested primary battles, and that would normally induce people to want to participate and register in a party,” he said. But Schurin noted there is dissatisfaction and antipathy toward the party system, especially among young people.

Merrill said the younger generation is not as interested in affiliating with things in general, citing lack of involvement in associations like the League of Women Voters and Lions Clubs.

Republican registrations were a higher share of new registrations among those over 65 than among those 26 to 64 or 18 to 25. But the portion became smaller over the past three midterm cycles: from 25 percent to 22.9 to 18.3.

When measuring new registrations against estimated population in each town, there were no towns that showed an unusually high or low number of new registrations.

Using July 2016 population estimates from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the share of newly registered voters ranged from 4.8 percent in Montville to 7.5 percent in Old Lyme.

Registrars share insights

A major reason for the surge in voter registrations this midterm cycle is not related to the current political climate but to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Starting in August 2016, the DMV began offering online voter registration.

Merrill said that 60 percent to 70 percent of new registrations now are coming from the DMV, up from about 4 percent.

Dianne Slopak and Dana McFee, the Republican registrars of voters in Norwich and Montville, both cited online DMV registration as a key reason for increased registrations.

“Ninety-nine percent — and I’m not kidding, 99 percent — of my registrations come from online,” McFee said. “That doesn’t mean they’re all generated from the DMV but a good portion of them are.”

Aside from the DMV, he feels people are becoming more cognizant of goings-on and realizing their votes do make a difference.

Still, because of the buildup, the Montville voter turnout of about 30 percent for Tuesday’s primary was lower than McFee expected.

In both Montville and Norwich, turnout was a little above 30 percent for Republicans and a little below that for Democrats, which Slopak noted is “really good for primary numbers.“She said Norwich typically is lucky if it hits 20 percent.

She was surprised to see that the precinct with a large senior-citizen population was the precinct with the lowest turnout for both parties.

In terms of the youth vote, Slopak thinks that young people are more concerned with what’s going to happen to them because “it’s harder to get jobs, it’s more expensive to go to school, and if they do go to school, a lot of kids come out with debt.”

When Groton Democratic Registrar of Voters Paul Duarte set up a table in the Fitch High School cafeteria on the national school walkout day in March, he registered 77 students to vote. Duarte said the state even called to ask if that number was right; he said he usually comes away with 12 or 15 registrations.

“But with the Parkland students getting out there and things like that, that’s generated a lot of activity amongst the young ones,” he said.