Editorial: Improve Turnout By Making Voting Worthwhile

Background <go to Editorial>

It seems that turnout is the holy grail of elections. Many election reforms are justified on a claim, true or not, that the reform will increase turnout. But, turnout is more a symptom of democracy, than an end in itself.

In our last post we summarized the case for and against no-excuse absentee voting. Proponents claim that it will increase turnout. Yet, what we find as the best science says it tends to decrease turnout – the reasons are not obvious, not intuitive, and far from clear.  Yet, either way the difference in turnout is just a very few points. It would be unlikely to take the 21% turnout we had in the recent primary and make it more than 25%.

What increases turnout? One factor could be voter interest in the election, that the election is important, and that their vote is important. We always have lower turnout in odd year municipal elections and higher turnout in general elections.  We have had more than our fair share of exciting general elections in even years lately, Lamont vs. Lieberman 2006, Malloy vs. Foley 2010, McMahon vs. Blumenthal 2010, and McMahon vs. Murphy in 2012.  Even when it is a slam dunk in Connecticut it seems that an election where voters want to register their enthusiasm for a candidate can bring voters out, e.g. Obama 2008.

Looking at the 2014 election, conventional wisdom is that it will be a close election rematch between Tom Foley and Dannel Malloy. Neither candidate is all that popular, both were expected to and are underway in very negative campaigns against each other. Columnist Kevin Rennie has characterized it as “A Race Between Two Dark Vaders”.  A close race between unpopular candidates, both well financed with lots of “outsider” funding as well – many voters will be turned off, yet many may still turnout.

How could it get more exciting? Enter two petitioning third party candidates, stage right and stage left. Is this exciting or more depressing?  For the two major party candidates and their supporters, depressing.  For supporters of the third-party candidates and those depressed by the major party candidates, exciting.

How could it get more depressing to voters and potential candidates? First, by the major party candidates and their supporters adding to the negativity by bashing the minor party candidates, and the system that allows them to petition their way onto the ballot. The case for additional candidates, best summarized by Connecticut native Ralph Nader, himself bashed for the 2000 election and for signing a petition for one of the candidates, resulting in a Courant Op-Ed <read>

Nader: Crashers Needed At The Two-Party Party

Giving voters more choices in an election year should be as American as the Fourth of July

The word “spoiler,” when applied only to small-party candidates, is an epithet of political bigotry. It says to people who want to enter the electoral arena and talk about ignored but important issues that they should not do so.

It says the two big parties own all the voters, and they should not be taken away by third-party candidates who can’t win. Nor should these candidates be given an opportunity to build voter familiarity and an eventual chance at winning over several elections.

Many Americans, despite their disgust with the behavior of the two major parties, think nothing of telling people not to run because they’ll be “spoilers.” That is equivalent to telling candidates to shut up — a nasty demand that one would not readily use in daily interactions.

Even so, I was surprised that my mere signing of former state legislator Jonathan Pelto’s petition, along with thousands of other Connecticut voters, to get him on the gubernatorial ballot made news. After all, giving voters more choices and voices in an election year should be as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. Except that it isn’t…

How could it get more depressing to voters and potential candidates? Second, by a system that looks like insider manipulation by local party operatives, with a system headed by a Secretary of the State powerless to enforce the law and free from full actual responsibility as the State’s “Chief Election Official”.

The only good news in this: There is enough remnants of our formerly world-leading Freedom Of Information law, a smart candidate, and apparently no questions asked cooperation from the Secretary of the State’s Office in providing transparency. (At least that is what we have experienced from the Merrill and Bysiewicz administrations, and have no reason to doubt here).

On Sunday, petitioning candidate Jon Pelto, on his blog described his efforts of see what was actually happening with his petitions, it is a long sad, interesting story. W applaud his initiative to find what is so:  You call this a Democracy?<read> His blog post is well worth reading.  We also applaud the Courant for an article in today’s edition covering the story and summarizing the issues, based on the information developed by Pelto, hopefully they have been, or will, be joined by other media in the State: Pelto Sweating Out Signature Count, Says He May Sue If Denied Ballot Access  <read>

Merrill’s office has been allowing Pelto, under supervision, to examine hundreds of petitions that it already has logged in — and he said it’s now clear that “dozens” of signatures were wrongly rejected by local officials.

Pelto said some of the unjustified reasons given for those rejections included: the lack of a full birth date in a space on the petition form that isn’t mandatory; a woman including her married name after the maiden name under which she was registered, even though all other information matched local records; and petition signers being on a local list of “inactive” voters, after not voting for a couple of years…

As Pelto riffled through stacks of petition sheets Tuesday, he said that Merrill’s staff already had agreed with him that some of the local officials’ rejections are unjustified. But, he added, Merrill’s office cannot overrule the decisions of local officials, many of whom are party insiders. Merrill can only compile the local officials’ certified totals; if they add up to 7,500 or more, she puts the candidate on the ballot.

[Deputy Secretary of the State James] Spallone said it appears Pelto is correct in at least some of what he says. For example, Spallone said, a signature shouldn’t be rejected simply because a person is on the local “inactive” voter list. People on that list must be allowed to vote if they show up on Election Day and verify their identities, he said, adding that “simply being ‘inactive,’ on its own, is not enough to reject a signature.”


This election demonstrates the worst of money in political campaigns with two sides with large stores of cash, along with only slightly “separate” groups assisting with even more cash. Much to the discredit of our once leading public financing system, struggling survival along with our FOI laws.

It also demonstrates the worst of our decentralized, dual partisan Registrars of Voters system of elections, with an almost powerless Secretary of the State. It is time to consider reforming the system by regionalization as we have suggested, and not make it worse as the Courant has been advocating.

And for turnout, that indicator and symptom of the value the electorate places on participation in elections. We have some suggestions to consider:

  • Make it easier for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, easier to qualify for public financing. Let us start with a level playing field for public financing, and officials that follow the law, with a “Chief Election Official” with actual responsibility for elections.
  • Reform the decentralized partisan election system.
  • Eliminate the “Spoiler” effect, provide more democracy, with a true runoff election when one candidate does not get 50_% of the vote.

Let us recall that in this generation, two third-party “spoilers” did win elections in Connecticut: Governor Lowell Weicker, and Senator Joe Lieberman.


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