Fairfield sees high election turnout and first-time volunteers

FAIRFIELD — Voters turned out in big numbers on Tuesday, with lines at polling stations for much of the morning.

About 84.8 percent of Fairfield’s 42,083 registered voters cast ballots, which translates to 35,700 votes, according to the Registrars of Voters office. It was a marked increase of voter participation compared to the 2016 presidential election, when the figure was 79.4 percent.

“We’re grateful to the all the Fairfield residents who took part in our democracy this week, breaking our previous turnout record by over 5,000 voters despite the challenges of the pandemic and new voting methods,” said Matthew Waggner, the Democratic Registrar of Voters.

Among the voters was Jonathan Deak, who said he waited about 20 minutes to get from the back of the line to nearly the front at Fairfield Warde High School around 11:30 a.m.

“There’s never been a line before,” he said. “And I usually vote around midday.”

He said normally there would be less than 10 people in front of him to vote in a typical election any other year. He said he didn’t have any COVID-related concerns with in-person voting.

Fairfield’s infection rate is 14.6 per 100,000 people, slightly lower from what it was leading up to the election.

Poll worker Leslie Hammer, who was doing curbside voting at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, said it was “really, really busy” and “packed” until about noon.

A first-time poll worker, Hammer said she felt like this year’s election was too important to not be a part of.

Annette Ham, the moderator at the site, said the longest wait they had was 30 to 40 minutes. She said voter turnout, including absentee ballots, was approximately 90 percent for that precinct.

The only hiccups in the day came when some of the machines jammed, prompting Fairfield’s registrars of voters to post a statement about it online, saying voters put their ballots in “auxiliary bins” while it was fixed, keeping uncounted ballots isolated from the counted ballots until the machine is again operational.

“Due to the large volume of voters and the folded ballots, we are experiencing a higher than usual number of jams on our voting tabulators. When a jam is not cleared correctly, it can cause the feeder mechanism to malfunction,” the post said. “We experience these problems every year, and had 3 machines where we had this problem this year, which were resolved in under an hour.”

The youth vote

A large amount of students at Sacred Heart University registered to vote this semester, but most voted in other towns or states using absentee ballots, said Carlos Ruiz, president of PioneerVote, a non-partisan student organization that aims to educate classmates about registering to vote.

He said the organization had two voter registration drives, but it became more difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic. The group teamed up with the university’s athletics deaprtment in October though and were able to spend two weeks registering student athletes.

Ruiz said a few teams had 100 percent registration rates.

“That’s around 150 students,” said Ruiz, a senior marketing major from Norwalk. “We also had two teams that were able to get 96 percent — men’s soccer and men’s hockey. Overall, we had 21 teams that were able to make it past the 75 percent mark.”

PioneerVote was able to sign up 700 to 1,000 students through the athletics partnership, he said.

Ruiz said a lot of the students the organization helped register were from battleground states in the presidential election. He said most of them preferred to participate in absentee or early voting.

He estimates about half the students he knew of registered in Fairfield though, adding it depended on where they felt they would have the most impact.

“We already live here for around 10 months,” Ruiz said. “For me at least, I wanted to vote here.”

He said a few Sacred Heart students also volunteered to work at polling locations, most of them in their hometowns.

Ruiz said college students, in general and ones that are members of student political organizations, also did a lot of campaign work for different candidates — noting that a lot of students helped with state Sen. Tony Hwang’s campaign.

Excitement even with COVID challenges

Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of political scienceat Fairfield University, said there was a lot of excitement among students about the election.

“This is, for Gen Z, which are our sophomores and our freshmen, their first presidential election,” she said. “Their generation is one that is very much politically engaged, and they have been since they were in high school or even middle school.”

Alberda said the pandemic hampered the university’s ability to do its voter registration drives and prevented Fairfield University from being the town’s Election Day registration site — a role it has traditionally played.

Same day registration instead took place at the polling locations and Old Town Hall.

It was also harder to get an accurate count of the number of students registering to vote this year because many were taking classes online. But, Alberda said, there were a lot of virtual events on campus in preparation of the election, including the athletic department’s “Stags Leap” initiative.

“They were able to successfully register 100 percent of the student athletes for the election,” she said

Alberda said there was also a series of programs teaching people how to register to vote or request an absentee ballot.

“There was a lot of engagement is really what my big takeaway (was),” she said, adding she received a lot of questions from students about how to get their ducks in a row to be able to register or vote.

As Alberda sees it, students that lived on campus or around it may have preferred to vote in the Fairfield area.

She also said a decent amount of students volunteered for local campaigns, although the pandemic hindered the students’ ability to do it fully.

Alberda said she did not know if any Fairfield University students volunteered at town polling station, but there was a national increase in the number of students working polling stations and counting ballots.

“That’s encouraging, because we don’t always think about those as ways to engage or participate, but they’re just as important as casting a vote,” she said.

In general, Alberda said the massive increase in early or absentee ballot voting, as well as the high participation rate, means the country is set up to have record voter turnout. If that trend continues in future elections, she said, the country may have a vastly different electorate.

The results

In the presidential election, Joe Biden won big in Fairfield — with almost a 2-to-1 ratio — 22,858 votes to President Donald Trump’s 12,049.

The town also overwhelmingly support U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, the incumbent Democrat. He received 21,478 votes, with Republican Jonathan Riddle getting 12,748 votes and Independent Brian Merlen receiving 553 votes, according to the registrar of voter’s numbers.

Democrats in Fairfield retained the state House seat in the 133rd District, where three-term state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey defeated Republican challenger Joanne Romano-Csonka. They also flipped the long-time Republican 132nd District where Democrat Jennifer Leeper won in a rematch against state Rep. Brian Farnen, the Republican who won the special election in January.

Republicans were able to retain their seats in the 28th State Senate district, where Tony Hwang defeated Democrat Michelle McCabe in a rematch of their 2018 race. In the 134th, which includes portions of Fairfield and Trumbull, Republican Laura Devlin won out against Democrat Carla Volpe.