An energized Democratic turnout in the Nov. 7 election appears to have been critical in helping all Democratic candidates win their seats, a feat that proved unattainable just two years ago.
Even more significant is the fact that Democrats were among the highest vote-getters of the day, particularly since slightly more Republicans than Democrats turned out to vote, followed by those who are unaffiliated.
According to information provided by the registrars of voters, of the 4,095 people who cast ballots, there were 1,518 Republicans, 1,451 Democrats, and 1,104 unaffiliated. Based on the latest party enrollments, this means the Democrats had a 41.4% turnout of their members, Republicans had 36.4%, unaffiliated had 23.3%.
The last 12 years have seen a significant change in Wilton’s voter enrollment, and that apparently was at play on Election Day.
In the spring of 2005, Republicans led all Wilton voters in enrollment:
- Registered voters — 11,412
- Republicans — 4,553 (40%)
- Democrats — 2,512 (22%)
- Unaffiliated — 4,327 (38%)
- Other — 20
By the spring of 2016 the Republican lead slipped:
- Registered voters — 11,480
- Republicans — 4,127 (36%)
- Democrats — 3,075 (27%)
- Unaffiliated — 4,216 (37%)
- Other — 62
Both Democrats and Republicans as well as those registered as unaffiliated made further gains by spring of this year:
- Registered voters — 12,367
- Republicans — 4,209 (34%)
- Democrats — 3,431 (28%)
- Unaffiliated — 4,652 (38%)
- Other — 75
By the day after the election, Nov. 8, things stood as follows:
- Registered voters — 12,503
- Republicans — 4,172 (33%)
- Democrats — 3,502 (28%)
- Unaffiliated — 4,746 (38%)
- Other — 83 (0.6%)
Deborah McFadden, who last week stepped down as chair of the Democratic Town Committee following her election to the Board of Selectmen, noted the difference in results from 2015, when both Democratic-backed candidates for the Board of Selectmen lost. She said her information showed that while Democratic turnout in 2015 was 43% compared to 41% this year, Republican turnout fell from 47% in 2015 to 36% this year.
She attributed some of that to the weather. “The last four hours of the election it poured,” she said. “I know that depressed some of the turnout.”
She believes the difference in results was “this year we ran not only strong candidates but a strong get-out-the-vote drive. It was the most assertive effort we’ve ever done. We did calling banks, door-to-door, robo calls by Jim Himes.”
In addition, she said, “there’s no question we were afforded crossover votes from Republicans and unaffiliateds.”
“There were at least three people who told me, ‘In my entire life I have always voted straight Republican, but in this election I’m voting straight Democratic,” McFadden said.
Another strategy the Democrats used was encouraging voters to not use all their available votes. For example, in the Board of Selectmen race, where voters could choose two candidates, the Democrats urged using only one — for McFadden. Melissa-Jean Rotini, an unaffiliated candidate for the Planning and Zoning Commission, made a point of that in her post-election statement.
“My campaign was about qualifications and listening to the residents,” she said. “The vote totals show broad bipartisan support for my candidacy, and I thank all those who rejected party-line voting to support me. Considering I had no party behind me, and that the campaign against me urged party-line voting and not casting all one’s votes, our numbers truly are remarkable!”
“While I am disappointed that I will be unable to continue my work as a member of P&Z, I am proud of the positive discourse that we have started about the need for our town officials to be qualified for the jobs they hold. My sincerest thanks go to all those who supported me throughout my campaign and I would like to assure them that based upon the vote totals, it is clear to me that there is an outcry for qualified, free-thinking town officials.”
Having three contested races was unusual in a town where an election of entirely uncontested races was not unusual. In those years, McFadden said, “Dems just took the minority representation seat. That’s no longer the case,” she added, with unaffiliated candidates making inroads. “We have to educate the population you have a choice. You really have to come out and vote.”
The result, she believes, was the best for Democrats in the town’s history. It was helped, in part, she agreed, by controversies on the national and local level “that upset some people.”
“On a national level, Democrats did well,” she said, “and it was reflected in Wilton.”
It was also reflected in neighboring towns. The result in Ridgefield was characterized as a “near Democratic sweep” with four boards flipped from red to blue. Boards were flipped in Weston, and in New Canaan, although a Republican was elected first selectman, the Democratic challenger lost by a mere 33 votes. A selectman’s seat long held by a Republican in conservative Easton was won by a Democrat.
Interim Republican Town Committee Chair Bill Lalor told The Bulletin he congratulated McFadden and the Democrats on a well-run campaign. The Republican turnout was nothing “to celebrate” he said, adding “it’s fairly routine the party losing the presidency shows up in force the next year.”
There was also the candidacy of former RTC Chair Al Alper running as a petitioning candidate. ”If Alper were not in the race, we’d be having a different conversation,” he said.
Asked if he thought there was a “Trump effect” trickling down from the presidency he said, “there’s no question he animates both sides of the aisle, but I don’t know what the empirical evidence is as to why people voted.”
As to why Republican voter registration appears on a downward trend Lalor said, “We know there’s a trend away from party registration. Unaffiliateds are a growing percentage in Wilton.
“My sense is this is part of a broader issue. Both parties ought to be paying attention. For the GOP there’s been a lot of change in the RTC since Alper stepped down. We’ve seen the numbers, we’re paying attention. Our focus is going to be external, paying attention to Wilton — taxes, development, schools, etc.”
While the Democrats did not take over any elected boards in Wilton, the Board of Education went from a 4-2 split in favor of Republicans to a 3-3 split. There are now three Democrats on the Planning and Zoning Commission, where before there were two.
None of this indicates smooth sailing ahead for Democrats, however. “We need to make sure we work hard on the federal level, state level, and local level,” McFadden said. “We recognize the 26th, 143rd, and 125th [state] districts are more challenging.” Those seats are held by Sen. Toni Boucher, Rep. Gail Lavielle, and Rep. Tom O’Dea, respectively.
But for now, local Democrats are enjoying their recent success. “Election nights are often disappointing,” McFadden said. “It’s a great feeling to be a winner for a change.”