Wilton voter turnout, budget approval in ‘absolute decline’

The number of Wiltonians who vote on the town budget is on the decline, as well as the percentage of those who approve the budget, according to Board of Finance member Jeff Rutishauser’s findings.
During the finance board’s Aug. 18 meeting — as a continuation of the board’s July discussion on the budget process — Rutishauser presented a chart of voting trends dating to 1996 based on data from the Wilton registrars of voters.
Rutishauser noted an “absolute decline” in the number of voters over the years — a trend, he said, that “should concern us greatly.”
According to the chart, voter turnout went from 3,645 in 1996 — 36.8% of 9,906 eligible voters — to 1,294 in 2015 — approximately 11.5% of 11,278 eligible voters.
While 1996 had the highest voter turnout, 2013 had the lowest — 806 of 11,647 (6.9%) eligible voters cast ballots that year.
“We have a situation right now where a lot of people don’t vote, they’re latent in ‘yes’ [votes] because they assume it’s going to pass so why bother, they’re latent in ‘no’ [votes] out there, saying the threshold to get a reject is so high so it doesn’t matter,” said Rutishauser.
“A lot of people don’t vote, and the small number of people who do vote have showed — in the last couple years, in increasing numbers — that they don’t like what is being proposed by us on the board,” said Rutishauser.
Last year, more people voted against the budget than in favor of it, said Rutishauser, “and yet, the three capital projects passed by a rather comfortable margin.”
“It was a disapproval of the operating budget — the big budget; not the capital projects that we recommended — that passed without a threshold on a straight yes-no vote,” he said.
Finance board member Richard Creeth said low voter turnout is not only a problem in Wilton, but one that all Connecticut municipalities are struggling with.
“None of us know what’s driving this. The one thing we know is that voter turnout is declining and it’s continuing to decline,” said Creeth, who also made a chart. He found that “the ‘no’ vote [in Wilton] isn’t really increasing that much — it’s the ‘yes’ vote that’s decreasing.”
“This isn’t just a Wilton problem — this is beyond our borders. I’d like to understand what it is and I’d like to do something about it, but I think the problem we face here and the reason the 15% threshold is in the charter is because you don’t want 10% of the voters making decisions that could be extremely consequential.”

Budget approval

Rutishauser said the declining number of people approving the budget is so dramatic that “we’re headed to a crossover — a parity point — in the near future if we don’t do things differently, at least in the eyes of voters who chose to vote.”
According to Rutishauser’s chart, the highest approval percentage over the past 19 years was in 1999, when the budget passed with 77.7% approval.
The highest rejection percentage was 58.1% in 1996. The second-highest rejection percentage was in 2015, with 53.2% of votes against the budget.
Unless there is a voter turnout of at least 15% of eligible voters, and a majority of those vote “no,” the town budget passes by default. In the past 19 years, the budget has been passed by default nine times — in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.
In 1996, “voters decisively rejected the 1996-1997 budget by a margin of 15%,” as the late Don Klotz wrote in a guest commentary article, published in The Bulletin on May 29, 1996. As a result, the budget went back to the Board of Finance and a second Town Meeting and a vote took place the following month.
In 2015, however, the rejection votes did not stop the budget from passing because fewer than 15% of eligible voters voted on the budget.
“Those who don’t vote, we can have a discussion on whether their opinions matter because in a democracy, if you don’t vote, you don’t have a say, and this board doesn’t approve anything,” said Rutishauser.
“We just recommend to the voters who show up to the Town Meeting, and they are the ones that determine who wins and who loses.”

Guide for the future

Rutishauser questioned how the results of the most recent budget vote, in comparison to prior years, could help the finance board in future budget processes.
“[For] the first time in 20 years, we’re looking back at a vote that voted against what we recommended at the town level, although that was one of the lowest increases we’ve had in years,” he said.
“How does that guide us for what we’re about to go into in the coming year? I think it does inform us that we do have to do something to respond to what the voters are telling us, and that’s how democracies work.”
Board of Finance Chair Warren Serenbetz said budget guidelines will be set at the board’s September meeting, during which there will be a “robust discussion.”
The Board of Finance’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m., in Room B of town hall.