Room for debate: A referendum on referendums?
This is the first of two articles exploring the nature of referendums in the political process. Part II will include perspectives from former charter-review commissioners, and look at how other towns and cities in the region handle referendums.
As results from the softball field referendum were tallied at the Registrar of Voters office last Thursday evening, Caroline Kane, a 14-year-old softball player, asked her mom a simple question with a complex answer.
"Did we win?"
"Sort of," her mom said.
Technically, two-thirds of voters who cast ballots that day opposed the ballfield project, which will be built on Hoyden's Lane with $350,000 in bonding. But though they were in the majority, those opponents -- who voted "No" -- were far too few to overturn the Representative Town Meeting's approval of the bonds.
The town charter requires that at least 25 percent of the electorate vote against an RTM decision -- as well as be in the majority -- to overturn it. The opponents, in this case, totaled roughly 6 percent of the town's voters -- about 6,000 votes short of the 8,800-vote threshold.
Yet, they doubled the "Yes" voters, and therefore made a statement.
Which begs the question: Is the 25 percent threshold too much to ask?
There have been 11 referendums in Fairfield over the last 35 years, according to records in the town clerk's office. The average total voter turnout for those referendums is 28 percent.
Only one of the 11 referendums successfully overturned an RTM decision. That vote took place in August 1995, when 38 percent of the town's voters went to the polls. The question that day was whether to spend $24.6 million to turn the "Roger Ludlowe" building on Unquowa Road into the town's tenth elementary school and third middle school.
On that day, 8,378 voters opposed the motion, which the RTM had approved in late June 1995, while 4,170 voted in support, according to Fairfield Citizen archives. The "No" votes squeaked past the 25 percent threshold -- by 102 votes -- but amassed a substantial majority.
The referendum that attracted the largest turnout since the mid-1970s occurred in May 1997, when 41 percent of registered voters went to the polls. The question that day was whether to spend $17.1 million to turn the Roger Ludlowe building into the town's third middle school.
Nearly 20 percent of the electorate opposed doing so (6,794 voters), while almost 22 percent approved of the project (7,603). The referendum failed on both counts -- insufficient turnout, lack of majority.
Meanwhile, last Thursday's referendum saw just 10 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. That's the lowest turnout of any referendum since the 1950s, according records in the Town Clerk's office.
The lowest referendum turnout previously had been in June 1967, when 17 percent of the electorate voted. That referendum unsuccessfully tried to bring about a charter revision.
The next two lowest referendum turnouts registered 20 percent turnout. In January 1978, a referendum failed to strip $1.73 million for Independence Hall, and in December 1983 the vote failed to block $700,000 for improvements at the "Life Center."
So what about that charter-required voter threshold of 25 percent? Should it be lowered?
First Selectman Kenneth Flatto said no.
"You have to have a high threshold," he said. "Otherwise everything the government does would be disrupted on a regular basis."
The reason a community elects public officials is to make decisions that they believe best represent the common interest, he said. "And [the elected officials] would not be able to work if almost every decision they make is subject to public second-guessing."
RTM member Liz Hoffman, R-8, who helped bring about last week's vote, said the question should be posed differently.
"The democratic process was put in place to serve the people," she said. "The question, then, is: Does [the democratic process] serve the majority of the people and reflect their wishes?"
In the case of the softball field, Hoffman said, the process did not.
She cited letters from constituents, conversations with residents and the results of last week's referendum as proof that most Fairfielders were against the project.
Plus, she said, the referendum took place when many residents were likely vacationing. And the referendum's limited hours -- polls were open from noon to 8 p.m., rather than the usual 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. -- could have dampened turnout.
"I have friends commute to New York City and get home at 7:30 or 8 in the evening," she said, "and who leave at 6 in the morning."
Lastly, she argued, the statewide primaries two days before the referendum didn't help turnout either. And even those contests drew relatively low turnouts, she said. (They attracted 24.3 percent of Fairfield's registered Democrats, and 26.3 percent of registered Republicans.)
"The threshold is too high under the best of circumstances," Hoffman said. "And all those factors were working against [it]."
Flatto brushed off that argument, saying the three referendums of the 1990s all attracted more than one-third of the town's voters to the polls.
Somewhat bridging the two sides, RTM member Alexis Harrison, R-2, said she doesn't think referendums are "set up to fail." She does, however, think the cards are stacked against anyone organizing a referendum.
"It's arduous to get 5 percent of registered voters to sign a petition itself," she said of the process required to bring about a referendum in the first place. Those signatures must be collected within a week of the RTM decision.
"And if that's achieved," she continued, "you have approximately two weeks to get the message out about the ballot date and to energize the electorate to get out and vote on a day where they [wouldn't] ordinarily do so. It's challenging and timing is everything."