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The Hartford Courant

In Hartford, Fewer Voters, Less Clout

"Why In Puerto Rico Do They Vote, Everybody? It's A Big Turnout. Why Not Here?"


November 23, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

Once the undisputed power of Democratic politics in Connecticut, Hartford hit an embarrassing milestone this year: For the first time, fewer than 40 percent of registered voters turned out for a gubernatorial election.

Only 17,406 voters showed up in Hartford on Nov. 5 to choose between Gov. John G. Rowland and William Curry, fewer than in two close suburbs. The race attracted 24,944 voters in West Hartford and 18,254 in Manchester.

Hartford's 39.06 percent turnout was the state's lowest. Statewide, turnout was 56.4 percent.

The reasons for the eclipse of Hartford and other cities by the suburbs are many, ranging from middle-class flight to the ossification of political parties. But the consequence is clear: less clout anyplace where political power counts, from the state Capitol to nominating conventions.

``Politicians aren't dumb. They know they need more votes to win,'' said Ken Dautrich, a political scientist and pollster at the University of Connecticut. ``There is very little candidates can do to reverse the mega-trend of declining turnout in Hartford. If they are rational, the candidates will pay less and less attention to the city.''

Hartford is used to being showed up by the bigger turnout of its wealthier neighbor, West Hartford, which has half the city's population. But being surpassed by Manchester is new, as is the prospect of Bristol, Glastonbury, Southington and Wallingford overtaking the capital . Each came within 2,500 votes this year.

Hartford's population dropped from 158,017 in 1970 to 121,578 in 2000, but population loss is only part of the problem. Only slightly more than half the city's 85,010 voting-age residents are even registered. And the percentage of those who vote keeps dropping. In the 1970 gubernatorial election, when 44,052 people voted, turnout was 75.6 percent.

Dautrich and others said the worsening turnout is the natural consequence of population loss, but more specifically middle-class flight. As the city's population shrinks, the percentage of those living in poverty is rising. Nearly half the city's households have an annual income of less than $25,000.

``The greatest predictors of participation [in elections] are income and education,'' said Jonathan Pelto, a political strategist. ``Where you have flight, not just white flight but flight of the middle-class of all races, you are removing the most likely participants in the process ... leaving behind the least likely participants.''

Stamford, a thriving Gold Coast city with a median family income more than double Hartford's, turned out the most voters this year, even though it is smaller than the poorer cities of Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford. Stamford saw 28,916 voters show up, compared with 21,513 in New Haven, 19,588 in Bridgeport and the 17,406 in Hartford. Waterbury, the hometown of the governor, did better: 24,418 voted.

``Pitiful. Absolutely pitiful'' is how Republican State Chairman Chris DePino of New Haven describes turnout in the larger cities. ``It was one of the reasons why the Democrats did so poorly in this election cycle. They have only themselves to blame. They have ruled these cities like little fiefdoms for years and years.''

Lack of competition in local legislative races plays a role in depressing voter interest. In Hartford, two of the six state representatives had no opponents. The others had token opposition. For that, DePino said the GOP bears some blame.

But Hartford did have some races of special interest this year. Denise Nappier, the state treasurer and only black statewide office holder, is from Hartford. And Mayor Eddie A. Perez organized a get-out-the-vote effort to help both Nappier and passage of a charter referendum giving the city a strong-mayor government.

Still, turnout dropped from 43.04 percent in the last gubernatorial contest.

In presidential election years, a majority of city voters still pay attention: Turnout was 61.71 percent in the 2000 presidential election, compared with 77.54 percent statewide.

Other factors aside from demographic trends may have depressed turnout this year.

Redistricting led to new polling places, which caused confusion in Hartford and other cities. This also was the first gubernatorial election since the abolition of the office of sheriff, the last source of significant local patronage.

Noel F. McGregor Jr., who became Hartford's Democratic chairman last March, said he knows some blame the town committee for low turnout.

``We need to get back to basics and reconnect with voters,'' McGregor said. ``The town committee members over the years have disconnected -- not all, but a lot.''

In some voting districts, the town committee members are middle class, while poor residents make up a majority of voters, McGregor said. The town committee must reach out, he said.

Another challenge is the relatively low turnout among Latinos, who comprise 40 percent of the city population.

On Hartford's Park Street, election night was bittersweet for Minnie Gonzalez, one of the city's two Latino state lawmakers. She celebrated an unopposed re-election, but she could only bemoan the 34 percent turnout in her district. Turnout in the district represented by the other Puerto Rican lawmaker, Evelyn C. Mantilla, was 28 percent.

Gonzalez said the poor turnout among Puerto Ricans puzzles her, given that more than 90 percent of voters often turn out for elections on the island.

``I don't know. Something is missing. I know that,'' Gonzalez said. ``Why in Puerto Rico do they vote, everybody? It's a big turnout. Why not here? I tell the people, `You live here. Vote.'''

Some Democrats privately blame Hispanic leaders for the turnout, but Dautrich said such finger-pointing misses the point. In poor neighborhoods, turnout always will be a challenge, regardless of ethnicity.

``How hard a local party works, or how hard a union works, or how hard a candidate works, that plays at the margins,'' Dautrich said.

The trends leading to fewer city residents participating in politics are not new, but they are becoming more problematic in Connecticut, since voter turnout can spiral downward , Pelto said.

Lower turnout in the cities leads to less attention by candidates. Less attention by candidates, as measured by time and money spent reaching urban voters, can lead to marginally lower turnouts.

``It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,'' Pelto said.

Despite the dire trends, others say the city never will lack for influence. Hartford continues to produce a bigger plurality for Democrats than any other municipality, other than New Haven. For that reason alone, the city will remain relevant in Democratic circles, said Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff.

But Dautrich is unsure.

Rowland got nearly as many votes in Greenwich as Curry did in Hartford. It is reasonable to expect Democrats to take Hartford for granted, just as Republicans take Greenwich for granted, he said.

``You want to stop by Hartford if you are a Democrat and stop by Greenwich if you are a Republican,'' Dautrich said. ``But you are not going to win there. To win, you need to go to the suburbs for the swing vote.''

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