Petitioners seek return to seven voting districts

District 3 voters cast their ballots at Madison Middle School in the 2015 municipal election.
District 3 voters cast their ballots at Madison Middle School in the 2015 municipal election.

Trumbull voters may get a chance to vote on where they vote if a group of community volunteers gets its way.

Last week the group Trumbull Citizens for Seven Districts submitted just under 3,000 petition signatures from eligible voters in town requesting a referendum on returning the town to seven voting districts. The petition needs signatures from 10% of those who voted in the most recent municipal election, or 2,393 electors, to be valid.

In 2011 the town changed from seven districts to four, but kept the Charter-mandated 21 Town Council members, meaning three districts have five councilmen, and the fourth is 20% larger than the others and has six councilmen.

Regina Haley, one of the group of residents behind the petition drive, said the motivation for the drive was unequal voting access across town.

“When you look at the numbers, you can see that the move to four districts disenfranchised parts of the town,” Haley said. Fewer districts means fewer polling places, and longer drives to the polls plus longer waits once voters get there.

In District 2, which votes at St. Joseph High School, 8,404 voters cast a ballot for Town Council in 2015, compared to districts 1 and 3, both of which saw turnout in excess of 12,000. Haley attributed that in part to the location of St. Joseph. By using Google’s map function, the committee calculated that 16% of the District 2 voters had to drive more than eight minutes to vote, more than double that of any other district. A 2016 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology determined that just a quarter mile longer drive can reduce turnout by up to 5%.

Haley said she hoped the issue could be on the November ballot when Trumbull will elect a new first selectman and Town Council. She said she also was interested in hearing candidates’ position on redistricting.

“As an elected official, why wouldn’t you want more people to have access to the polls?” she said.

Among the candidates for first selectman, Democrat Vicki Tesoro was alone in expressing strong support for the return to seven districts. Her campaign platform includes a promise to advocate for a return to seven districts should she win the office.

“It’s time for the people to decide, not the politicians,” Tesoro said. “When thousands of our citizens demand a voice, they should be heard.”

Republican Paul Lavoie said he was not necessarily opposed to the change, but questioned the wisdom of making the change in the middle of a 10-year redistricting cycle.

“We redistricted in 2011, and we’re going to do it again in 2021, so does it make sense to change again in 2018 too?” he said. “But if that’s the will of the people, then that’s what we’ll do. That’s the beauty of America.”

Petitioning candidate Michael Redgate said he supported making voting easier and suggested additional staff at the polls could eliminate some of the complaints of long lines. As for changing the number of districts, he said “There is no data that supports the number of districts is responsible for low voter turnout.”

Redgate also suggested partisanship could be behind the petition drive.

“We know that one party favors seven districts and the other four,” he said. “If the Democrats had a super majority there would not be a petition.”

Haley, who has been critical of Republican First Selectman Tim Herbst in the past, denied a political motivation for the redistricting petition. Of the petition-signers, 37% are registered Democrats, 20% are Republicans and 41% are unaffiliated.

“We said that we are bipartisan and we mean it,” she said.