WILTON — Initially, the Presidential Preference Primary on Aug. 11 didn’t seem like it would be particularly remarkable. Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden were already determined to be the presumptive nominees.

But voter turnout for the towns in the 26th state Senate district — Wilton, Ridgefield, Westport, Redding, Bethel, Weston, and Westport — made things a little more interesting.

The percentage of Democrats who voted in those seven towns was nearly double that of the Republicans.

All things considered, there wasn’t that much at stake for Democrats in those towns. With just one question on their ballot — presidential candidate, the outcome was pretty much what everyone expected. Joe Biden handily secured the nod.

Local Republicans had more at stake. In addition to their choice for president, there was also a race for the 26th district’s state Senate seat. Kim Healy from Wilton faced William Duff from Bethel. The winner (ultimately Healy) will challenge Democratic incumbent Will Haskell in the November election.

What made this race especially important was that the 26th district seat was once a longtime stronghold for Republicans, who held it since 1973 until Haskell defeated incumbent Toni Boucher in 2018.

But the Republican primary turnout for towns in the 26th district was surprisingly low. When the final counts were tallied, Republicans averaged just around 22 percent voter turnout.

Bethel, Duff’s hometown, had the largest percentage of Republican voters with 28.2 percent, followed by Wilton, Healy’s hometown, with 27.7 percent. Redding had 24.8 percent, Westport 23.6 percent, Ridgefield 21.7 percent, Weston 21.4 percent, and New Canaan 16.3 percent.

Democrats, on the other hand, averaged more than 40 percent turnout.

Bethel had 40.9 percent Democratic turnout, Wilton 44.28 percent, Redding 41.9 percent, Westport 40.3 percent, Ridgefield 38.4 percent, Weston 44 percent and New Canaan 26.5 percent.

So what would drive Democrats, with a fairly uncontentious ballot, to vote so heavily in this primary? Several party activists offered their opinions.

Tom Dubin, chair of the Wilton Democratic Town Committee, and representative on the State Central Committee, cited “growing excitement” by Democrats for the upcoming presidential election.

“The difference between the parties’ turnout reflects two dynamics, both of which relate to national politics,” Dubin said.

First, Dubin said, Wilton Democrats recognized an “urgent need” for change in Washington. “There is a growing excitement behind Joe Biden and the moderate views he represents and people wanted to show up to further his momentum,” he said.

Second, he said, it was no secret that even many Wilton Republicans “had difficulty supporting Donald Trump.”

This may be supported by the number of “uncommitted” delegates to the conventions that resulted from the primary. There were only 16 on the Democratic side, but 205 on the Republican side, 20 percent of the total number of votes.

Joe Shapiro, chair of Ridgefield’s Democratic Town Committee, concurred. “Democrats are energized because Trump is a disastrous President, so Democrats voted in a primary that was essentially uncontested,” he said.

“There is no doubt Democrats are increasing, and there is no doubt the energy is there for people to work on their behalf, said Ellen Lautenberg, chair of Westport’s Democratic Town Committee.

Noting the low Republican voter turnout, Chris Lineberger, chair of Wilton’s Republican Town Committee, called 2020 a “strange year,” with the pandemic going on, and the primary delayed from April to August.

“Some people were away at this time and there were problems with absentee ballots, but I can’t explain the numbers,” he said. “But, I don’t think these numbers will reflect what happens in November. I think you will see people coming out in full force.”

Both sides are gearing up for the November election.

Voting issues

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the primary in a number of ways. Gov. Ned Lamont delayed the voting date from April 28 to Aug. 11, and allowed “no-excuse” absentee ballots for the first time, which caused some procedural issues for the state.

Nearly 300,000 absentee ballots were issued by the state — 10 times the typical total. Approximately 57 percent of the total vote was done by absentee ballot.

Polling places reported that in-person voting generally went smoothly on Primary Day. Voter traffic was generally light due to the abundance of voting by absentee ballot.

COVID protections were in place at the polls, areas were kept clean, social distancing was in place and people wore masks, according to Amy Alcott, Redding’s Republican registrar of voters.

“We had the usual problem of people not remembering that they were registered as unaffiliated and not with a party,” said Karen Birck, Wilton’s Democratic registrar.

Connecticut is a “closed primary” state, and primaries are limited to those registered as Democrat or Republican. So unaffiliated electors who turned up at the polls were turned away, unable to vote.

There were more glitches with the absentee ballots. That process did not go as smoothly, with lessons to be learned for the November presidential election.

First, there were physical problems with the ballots themselves. There were complaints that the ballots were so tightly packed into their outer envelopes that letter opening machines couldn’t be used to open them because they would cut into the ballot.

Also, some of the inner envelopes for the ballot and outer mailing envelopes sent out by the secretary of the state arrived sealed shut, “probably because of the heat and humidity,” said Birck.

The mass mailings of applications and ballots was handled by a third-party mail house hired by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill.

Anecdotally, there were complaints that some voters received more than one absentee ballot, and others received both a Democrat and Republican ballot.

But known for certain was that 20,000 ballots weren’t sent out in time, which wasn’t known by town clerks until just eight days before the primary, which left them scrambling to get the ballots to the voters.

Unsure of who was at fault, Merrill said, “I think there were misunderstandings all the way around.”

Voting results from the primary were delayed when the deadline for absentee ballot voting was extended by Lamont from Tuesday to Thursday, prompted by disruptions to mail delivery caused by Tropical Storm Isaias.

Alcott of Redding was critical of how the absentee ballot process was handled in general. “I wish the state educated the public more. The secretary of the state’s office waited too long to mail out the ballots and didn’t educate the public sufficiently on how to process them,” she said.

A number of absentee ballots had to be rejected by poll workers because they had not been processed correctly by the voters. “The ballot was confusing, it had too many words. More education is needed well in advance of the vote,” Alcott said.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com