Last week we published a survey question aimed at Wilton residents who were eligible to vote on the Town’s annual budget this year but didn’t, asking why they didn’t vote. After only 18-percent turned out to cast their ballots, we’re trying to understand why the majority of Wilton voters ⎯ 82 percent! ⎯ don’t engage in the process even when the question being considered directly impacts their wallets.

As one town official involved with the voting process told us, our poll was a “…valiant effort in trying to find out what elections officials have been asking for decades—why don’t people vote when given the chance?”

Even though we’ve (sadly) touted Wilton’s recent 18-percent voter turnout rate as something GOOD—let’s face it, it’s not. One cynical observer privately asked us, “Why do you want people who don’t know or who don’t care to vote?” But we still hold on to the philosophy that residents have a democratic responsibility to vote (let alone a selfish responsibility to have a say in their own financial business).

So in the hopes of trying to eke out higher turnout in future municipal votes, we’ll present our results and let you know what some town officials had to say as well.

Survey Results

We received a few answers to our question, but just a few. (Yes, we’re aware of the irony of asking people to vote in a poll about why they don’t vote. Maybe they just don’t vote, ever.) In all, 78 people responded.

We initially gave people six possible answers that might provide a reason for why they didn’t vote; we only allowed them to choose one answer. Here are the results:

[yop_poll id=”15″ show_results=”1″]

Respondents had a 7th option, “other” which allowed them to then write in an “other” reason; some of those other reasons included:

  • I was out of town.
  • I didn’t know which way to vote.
  • I was working.
  • It was too difficult to get an absentee ballot.

[Editor’s note:  we’ve embedded images of the raw data at the end of the article, so you can see all the ‘other’ write-in answers as well as general comments respondents made.]

We took those write-in answers and grouped them with one of the six answers we provided to get a general idea of trends of what people reported, as most of the write-in answers reasonably fit within the six main answers we had provided.

What’s at work here

What we found is that the majority of the voters were “too busy” to vote, or found it too inconvenient to get to the polls. ‘Working,’ ‘overcommitted’ and ‘out of town’ were the things that kept people from casting their votes. Some voters expressed frustration that there was ‘only one day for voting.’ While the polls were actually open twiceimmediately following the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday evening, and all day Saturday—voters could have stopped into the town clerk’s office at Town Hall to fill out absentee ballots from Wednesday through Friday.

However, absentee ballot rules are strict, as some people grumble. Absentee ballots don’t become available until the day after the town meeting; when they do become available, they can only be picked up in person at Town Hall to prevent voter fraud. The time window to vote absentee is narrow, but that’s because what’s actually being voted on isn’t decided until the end of the meeting Tuesday evening, so voting cannot take place until that meeting is concluded.

One town official pointed out that the Wednesday-Friday availability of absentee ballots wasn’t widely publicized before the vote; if people don’t really know the option is there, they won’t even plan on it as an option at all. “It occurs to me that the only time we really publicize the availability of absentee ballots is at the ATM on Tuesday night. Many people might not know that they can vote absentee [all week]. It’s not an ideal solution but it is another option,” said Warren Serenbetz, Board of Finance vice-chair.

Serenbetz also suggested widening the window time for absentee ballots, as much as possible. “How about extending the hours that absentee ballots can be accessed and returned. Rather than 4:30 p.m. extend it to 8 p.m. on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday between the Annual Town Meeting and Saturday voting?”

Board of Education chair Bruce Likly struck upon the same theme of making voting more accessible if the town wants to grow voter participation. “What is most glaring to me is that we need to make voting easier for  people to do while still insuring the integrity of the process.”

He echoed what some of the respondents suggested:  consider online voting. “If our bank accounts are secure you’d think we should be able to implement a secure online voting process.”

Not so fast—despite many people asking for online voting, it’s not yet legal in CT, and likely won’t be for a very long time, if ever. It’s not reliable enough or 100-percent tamper-proof. Democratic registrar of voters Carole Young Kleinfeld told GMW this:

A couple years ago, the Sec of the State convened a panel of computer scientists from around the country who declared “not in their lifetime”….

One of the University of Michigan computer science professors attending that night did an experiment where his graduate students hacked into a local Washington DC experimental online election. Washington had invited people to try because they were convinced they were secure and unhackable. Not only did the students hack in within 48 hours, but they flipped votes, viewed others who were trying to hack in, and programmed the Michigan Fight Song into the program for voters to hear when they cast their votes. The officials didn’t even realize they’d been hacked until some voter called saying they liked the “music” after voting.

The DOD canceled their online voting experiment a few years ago because of security concerns.

I know that some countries have been experimenting with this but I don’t know of anywhere where it’s been successful. But the mainstream computer science organizations and universities are still against it. Probably some day….

Young-Kleinfeld appreciated being able to read all of the additional comments people submitted, and noted,  We’ll certainly consider them as we plan for upcoming elections or referenda.

One of the questions that arises when a very large percentage of the eligible voting population stays away from the polls is whether staying away is tacit approval for the budget. In hindsight, we should have included another option for readers to consider for explaining why they didn’t vote:  “I approve of the budget,  and I assume it’s going to pass so why do I have go vote?” If anything that answer option might have either confirmed or dispelled that myth.

When 80-percent of the eligible voters in Wilton don’t turn out for a budget vote, what message are they sending? Are they saying that they can live with the budget as proposed? Do they mean to convey that they’re just not that interested?

First selectman Lynne Vanderslice says she and the other selectmen are trying to figure it out as well. What she picked up on in the comments from our respondents was that there were a number of obstacles that prevented people from getting to the polls.

“Most of the comments you received dealt with making voting easier, online voting, longer hours or a different absentee ballot process. I agree online voting would increase participation but the state legislature has not allowed it. At Monday’s BOS meeting we discussed starting the Saturday voting at 8 a.m., rather than 9 a.m.. We did this in the past without much turnout, but I’m willing to give it a try again.”

She’s looking for other ways to give voters more chances to vote, but the town Charter has to be checked first to see what it permits:

“As far as absentee voting, it is difficult to obtain and return a ballot between Wednesday am and Saturday’s adjourned vote.  One possible solution is to move the adjourned vote out a week to the following Saturday thus giving people more time.  I need to look at the charter, but if allowed, it is another idea worth considering.”

Since she took office, Vanderslice has been trying to fulfill her campaign promise of increasing citizen involvement, not only at the polls but also in town government. But even with the steps Vanderslice has taken—including reverse directory get-ut-the-vote calls the day before budget hearings and votes; increased information on the town website; and signage up and down Rte. 7.—she’s aware people may not vote no matter what.

“There are some people who are just indifferent to voting.  Nonetheless increasing turnout is a priority for me, so I’m open to trying new initiatives to make it happen.

Poll responses
Poll responses
General comments offered by respondents
General comments offered by respondents
General comments offered by respondents