Trumbull makes case for 7-district council
TRUMBULL — The 2012 change from seven Town Council districts to four has hurt voter turnout and diminished minority party representation on the council, according to comments at Saturday’s public information session.
With the Town Council set to begin discussions on a return to seven districts in February, voters got a chance to hear preliminary details firsthand. Regina Haley of the group Trumbull Citizens for 7 Districts presented some data the group has compiled, and advocates for and against the change got a chance to state their opinions.
“If you have an opinion, one or the other, you can share it, but there will be no back and forth about it this morning,” said First Selectman Vicki Tesoro. “If this turns into a political debate, I will stop the meeting.”
Haley said research conducted by her group has shown a decline in voter turnout since the town switched from seven districts to four in 2012.
“Under seven districts, Trumbull turnout was two to four percentage points above the state average,” she said. “When we switched to four districts, something interesting happened — that declined significantly.”
One possible reason for the decline is crowding at the polls, Haley said. The switch from seven districts to four increased the average number of registered voters per polling location from 3,600 to about 6,500, an increase of 80 percent, she said.
In soliciting comments from the public, Haley said the group had heard complaints about difficulty finding parking spots and long lines to vote.
Also, driving time to the polls increased for many voters when the town reduced the number of polling locations, she said.
“Does driving distance matter? MIT says it does,” she said, citing a 2016 study showing an increase of just a quarter of a mile reduced voter turnout by between two percent and four percent, and that the effect was increased among minority populations.
“We really want to bring back convenient voting locations, reduce congestion, and bring voters closer to voting locations which, hopefully, will bring voters back to the polls,” she said.
Tesoro, who was on the Town Council when the town went to four districts, said the 2012 redistricting committee had stated as one of its goals the elimination of split districts. A split district occurs when a council district is not aligned with a state General Assembly district, meaning two voters at the same polling location could receive different ballots.
“The charge was to get rid of as many split districts as possible,” she said. Currently, there is only one split district in Trumbull, where about 600 District 2 residents are in the 122nd state House District, currently represented by Shelton Republican Ben McGorty.
Tesoro said making the change to more districts was a priority, with high voter turnout expected for the 2020 presidential election.
In addition, the Town Council would return to a maximum 14-7 party split following the 2021 election, another important consideration, she said.
“I don’t think any party should have a supermajority. It doesn’t accurately reflect Trumbull” she said. “I sat on a council when I was just one of four people (in the minority party). How is that good for Trumbull?”
During the public comments, none of the speakers said they opposed a return to seven districts, though several suggested delaying the decision. Republican Registrar Bill Holden said district changes would be better two years from now, after the state and federal reapportionment following the 2020 Census.
“This is not the time. Two years from now would be,” he said.
State Rep. David Rutigliano, R-123rd, declared himself “agnostic” on the issue of four districts or seven, but said the council should take its time. He suggested a series of small steps to address individual concerns. For example, since voters sign in by street address, a so-called LMO line would be a good idea since street names disproportionally begin with the letters L, M and O, he said.
“I think the long lines are due to an unwillingness to make basic changes,” he said. “With a little creativity and a little willingness on the registrars’ level, we could get through it.”
Other small changes also could add up, said Tracy Vonick, a former councilman and former Republican deputy registrar.
“There are many things we can do, particularly with one pet peeve,” he said. “On Election Day, schools are out, and teachers have development meetings. But they tend to hold them at the schools. Move them and it alleviates some of the parking.”
Former First Selectman Ray Baldwin advocated returning to seven districts as a means to boost minority party representation. Baldwin served four terms, always with a seven-district council.
“One of the things I always appreciated is the commitment to minority representation, that is our strength,” he said. “Having seven districts will fill two things: Make voting more convenient, and more importantly, allow for more representative government in town.”
The process of potentially changing back to seven districts will begin in February, with the council expected to form a redistricting committee to study the issue. Tesoro made the return to seven districts a centerpiece of her 2019 re-election campaign and Democrats hold 16 of the council’s 21 seats. Should the council approve a seven-district plan, that would mean that two current council Democrats would lose their seats.