NB Politicus

Campaign dollars soared in ’21 municipal election but voter participation declined

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, Voting by nbpoliticus on March 27, 2022

28% Turnout Continues A Downward Trend In Voting For Local Office Holders

By John McNamara

“Money is the mother’s milk of politics” goes the observation first coined in the 1960s that applies to almost every state and federal election cycle as all kinds of committees and special interests raise billions in reported and anonymous donations.

That old saying about money in politics applies less frequently to local elections where votes are more easily won (or should be) on the ground and neighbor to neighbor without big outlays for media and consultants. You can’t say that about New Britain’s 2021 municipal election when the money race accelerated, voter participation declined and the status quo at City Hall was overwhelmingly sustained.

Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast. New Britain is not alone in a decline in voter participation for local elections, especially in mid- and large-sized cities. Cities across the state and nation continued to register lower turnouts last year. But by bottoming out at 28%, New Britain fell below the already dismal 32.13% statewide turnout.

Last year marked the first time in memory that turnout dropped below 30 percent while mayoral campaign money for the November 2 election exceeded $30 for every vote cast

Incumbent Erin Stewart handily won a fifth term over State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) and swept a Council majority in with her as a super majority of eligible voters failed to show up.

Because of a Presidential Year bounce in 2020, there were 2,270 more eligible voters in 2021 than in 2019. In her landslide win, however, Erin Stewart received fewer votes than the 2019 totals as the turnout gap widened between municipal and state and federal ballots.

Despite campaign cash aplenty voter turnout continued a decline in the 2021 municipal election. (newbritainprogressive.com)

Four mayoral campaigns involving three Democrats and Republican Stewart reported contributions totaling $384,900 by the end of 2021. The Democratic and Republican Town Committees added another $53,000 to the “off year” election cycle bringing the reported political cash to $437,900 to get out the vote. The totals do not include under ticket slate or candidate committees that drove donations well past $450,000.

Mayor Stewart’s “Re-Elect Erin” Committee raised $178,835 and spent $175,835. Stewart, tapping the advantages of incumbency, outpaced Bobby Sanchez’ fundraising by nearly $60,000. Sanchez’ committee raised and spent $116,518. Democratic mayoral challengers Veronica DeLandro and Alicia Strong raised another $90,000 combined. Strong raised and spent $21,000 in losing to the endorsed Sanchez in September’s primary. DeLandro’s committee raised approximately $69,000 but her committee failed to gather sufficient signatures to get on the primary ballot. DeLandro has subsequently formed her own “Bee The Change” political action committee (PAC), and may have converted a significant treasury into an ongoing PAC.

Last year’s surge in fundraising can be attributed to several factors. Incumbent Stewart did not take the potential of a serious and well-funded challenge for granted. She ramped up her fundraising and leaned into the perks that go with incumbency. “The Democrats showed early signs of political energy, with three determined candidates running for mayor.” observed a post-election story in The New Britain Progressive. “Whether that early momentum will continue into success in future elections remains to be seen, but it certainly did not manifest in the November elections in 2021.”

Stewart effectively pursued a Walnut Hill Park “Rose Garden strategy” in winning a fifth, two-year term. Few sparks flew between Stewart and Sanchez to stir voter interest with the incumbent largely ignoring the Democratic nominee. The incumbent even managed to ungracefully ignore a traditional League of Women Voters debate that would have been the only public forum of the campaign. Her salvos were directed at the school administration over social media related disruptions at the high school last fall making it seem at times that Erin Stewart was running against School Superintendent Nancy Sarra. For his part Sanchez earnestly pointed to his work as the Legislature’s Education Chair in delivering record amounts for school construction and school aid and called for a City Hall more responsive to neighborhoods. Stewart, meanwhile, cut the ribbon on renovations at the Chamberlain School and other developments in romping to a low-turnout victory.

While voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential Election was close to 70 per cent in the year of the pandemic in New Britain, the 2021 municipal race continued the widespread slide in the number of voters who elect local office holders. Some reformers at think tanks that study voting patterns have proposed aligning all elections from dog catcher to President to even numbered years for bigger turnouts. Legislatures or localities, however, show no signs of taking that step which involves a lengthy process of changing statutes and charters.

For New Britain it will surely take more than campaign dollars that were so plentiful last year to reverse that decline in voting in 2023.

Voter Participation In Last Three Municipal Elections In New Britain

  • 2017 Voter Participation 30% | 31,899 Eligible and 9,684 Voting
  • 2019 Voter Participation 32% | 31,205 Eligible and 9,945 Voting
  • 2021 Voter Participation 28% | 33,475 Eligible and 9,333 Voting