Unaffiliated voters surge in Darien while Trump in office
DARIEN — Unaffiliated voters continue to increase in town, according to the latest numbers from the registrars of voters.
With a contentious presidential election less than two months away, the latest data as of Sept. 1 show the highest number of registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters in Darien, and the lowest number of registered Republicans since 1988.
Darien’s political party registration has changed most drastically in the last four years since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. In addition to surge in unaffiliated voters, Republicans lost more than 700 registered voters and Democrats have gained nearly the same amount during that period. Republicans, however, still outnumber Demcrats nearly 2-to-1 in town.
The number of unaffiliated voters in 1988 was 1,945. As of last month, that number increased to 5,050. The number of Democrats has also increased from 1,921 to 3,506, while Republicans have decreased from 7,834 to 5,434.
Despite the increase in unaffiliated voters, they represent only a small fraction of seats on Darien’s commissions and boards. Out of all those who have their memberships/affiliations listed on the town’s website — unaffiliated residents hold approximately 10 out of 100 seats.
David Bayne, chairman of Darien’s Democratic Town Committee, attributes “the shifting party registration numbers to the fact that the voters of Darien are willing to see the facts with their own eyes.”
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, a Republican, said she’s not “at all surprised that, at this time in our national political discourse, that there are more unaffiliated voters here in Darien.”
“With the polarization of the two parties across the nation and here in Connecticut and the lack of willingness to respectfully disagree on political ideas, most people don’t want to be labeled (and publicly criticized) for their opinions of one ideology or another,” Stevenson said.
Republican Town Committee Chairman Alexander Davidson said the uptick in unaffiliated voters “reflects a deep frustration with both major political parties on the national stage.”
“The Darien Republican Town Committee supports local candidates who work cooperatively to get things done, putting the interests of the town and all its residents ahead of any national political agenda,” he said.
The biggest historical drop in Democratic registration between presidential elections occurred from 1992 to 1996 when the party lost 185 registered voters.
The biggest increase has occurred while Trump has been in office. There are now 3,506 registered Democrats in Darien as of Sept. 1 after increasing by 701 since 2016.
During the same period, Darien Republicans suffered their largest decrease in voters. The GOP has lost 776 voters since 2016 and now stand at 5.434 as of Sept. 1.
Stevenson said part of the reason for more unaffiliated registrations is because Darien residents tend to support conservative financial policies, while not as focused on the conservative social policies that national Republican platforms tend to endorse.
Disagreeing with both parties is what prompted Commission on Aging chairman and former registered Democrat Joe Pankowski to change to unaffiliated. He switched after a local battle over renovating a Town Hall building into a new senior center. The project’s approval in 2010 and subsequent construction and completion in 2014 was heavily criticized along party lines.
"I'm unaffiliated because I don't see either party truly representing my beliefs about good government. We need solid, common sense decisions, but many issues seem to get caught up in party politics,” Pankowski said.
He cited the Mather Center project as an example, saying he was “shocked” at the time when local Democrats opposed its construction.
“Similarly, the Republicans are fully aware of the unjust imprisonment of people for simple marijuana possession and our state's need for tax revenue, yet oppose the legalization and taxation of marijuana,” he said.
Unaffiliated Darien Police Commissioner Kevin Cunningham changed his affiliation from Democrat before he was appointed last summer. He said he always thought of himself as more “independent” in his thinking and political leanings.
“The current political environment can sometimes be quite divisive and, at the moment, being a ‘U’ allows me to not feel encumbered by political party affiliation and enables me to be a better and more effective public servant,” he said.
Increase in Democrats
Bayne said Darien Democrats have heard from many “life-long” Republicans who switched parties because they are uncomfortable with the party that both nominated Trump and has “steadfastly defended him and his policies when so many of them are antithetical to America’s core values of justice, equality and opportunity for all.”
Bayne said the “final straw” is the president’s response to the coronavirus “that devastated this area earlier in the year and which continues to threaten every Darien resident.”
“Darien’s Democrats have welcomed these former Republicans to our party — so much so that we even elected one to the Board of Finance last year. Our tent is big and we welcome diverse viewpoints,” Bayne said.
Despite Republican being the majority party, in 2016, the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton received 5,942 votes to Trump’s 4,625. It was the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had won in Darien since 1888.
According to the Secretary of the State’s website, unaffiliated is the term used to refer to voters who are not registered with a political party. This term is used instead of referring to these voters as independent to avoid confusion with the Independent Party, which is an established political group.
As of October 2019, total active Republicans in Connecticut number 458,167, total active Democrats number 797,868, minority party active members number 33,702 and active unaffiliated number 888,164.
In February 2020, The Washington Post reported that for the first time, registered independent voters barely edged Republicans in terms of percentage of registered voters for the 31 states required to report this data. At that time, the Post reported that independent voters were at 29.09 percent while Republicans were at 28.87 percent, with Democrats at 39.66 percent.
Cunningham said despite the “unaffiliated” label, most of these people generally lean toward one of the two major political parties.
“This means that there is a unique and powerful opportunity for both parties to embrace these ‘U’ voters in order to have a more dynamic party that is inclusive of those who don’t always have traditional ‘R’ or ‘D’ leanings,” he said.
Of the future, Pankowski said, “I'm hopeful that both parties will put aside their differences and work for the betterment of our state and nation, but I'm not holding my breath."
For more information on voting, voter affiliation or the election, visit the registrar’s page at darienct.gov.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Unaffiliated voters outnumbered Republican voters. Republican voters remain the highest number of voters. We have updated to clarify.