Though election officials took precautions to make sure voting stations were sanitized, it's possible that one reason for Tuesday's stunning drop in voter turnout was fear of the flu.
Mayor Art Ward said that some of the people who did go to the polls didn't want to shake hands with candidates out of concern that it might spread the flu virus.
David Mills, who won a City Council contest Tuesday, said the election “might have been influenced by the paranoia about the flu.”
“Many people were ill or afraid to handle pens and other election equipment,” Mills said. “Parents might have been home with their children and unable to get out.”
“The elderly may also have been concerned with the flu and contracting a virus,” Mills said.
A number of poll workers said Tuesday they were struck by how few voters stopped to ask questions or talk with party activists and politicians outside polling stations across town.
In Bristol, just 26 percent of the more than 34,000 registered voters cast a ballot in the municipal race.
That's down from 36.4 percent turnout in the 2007 mayoral race and 38.4 percent in the 2005 contest. In 2003, 40.6 percent of voters showed up at the polls. Turnout in 2001 was 36.5 percent, while 1999's mayoral race got 44.7 percent to vote.
Many expected a lighter than normal turnout Tuesday because the mayoral race generated so little heat and attention, but a falloff of more than a third of the usual turnout stunned almost everyone involved in the community's politics.
The losing mayoral candidate a decade ago, Republican Mike Werner, racked up106 votes more than Ward did in winning Tuesday. And Werner lost his race by more than 2,500 votes.
Why the sharp decline this year?
"I have no idea," said Democratic Registrar Bob Badal. "It was a beautiful day."
The GOP registrar, Sharon Krawiecki, called it "a very sad trend" toward more voter apathy.
She called the low numbers "a considerable drop" from other city races.
"What does that mean? I don't know," Krawiecki said.
Ward aid he's not sure either, but he hopes it's not apathy.
Part of it may be that people felt the city was doing everything it could to deal with the turmoil connected to the economy so they figured there was no reason to go vote for change.
"Why change captains in the middle of the ocean?" Ward said.
On the other hand, he said, it was "a beautiful, beautiful day" until after sunset, when a little rain fell, so voters had no weather-related excuses for staying home.
Ward said that low turnout appears to have been common in many places during Tuesday's election so it doesn't seem that anything in particular happened in Bristol to keep people home.
Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz’s office cited a 37 percent turnout statewide, though not all races have been factored in yet. Bristol has traditionally come pretty close to matching the statewide turnout figures.
The one obvious factor that might have held down numbers across the board is the flu.
Some voters, no doubt, were actually sick, or perhaps taking care of children or other family members who are ill.
Others may simply have heeded public health warnings to avoid unnecessary public exposure to the risk of catching the H1N1 flu.
It doesn’t appear, though, that Bristol’s getting socked with the flu at the moment.
City Personnel Director Diane Ferguson said she hasn't seen a spike in absences among the city's large workforce.
School Superintendent Philip Streifer said that student absenteeism is going down. Only a couple of schools are “still above the norm” so the flu generally is not having much impact on education in town.
Voter apathy, disgust and distraction clearly played a role in the sinking turnout rate.
City Democratic Chairman Elliott Nelson said there were many reasons for the low turnout, “but basically people are nervous about the economy and their future, thus disconnecting themselves from the political system.”
Nelson said the Democrats need “to bridge that disconnect with hope for the future with nonpartisan politics to solve some of the problems that we face as a community.”
City Councilor Ken Cockayne said, “Many people are disappointed with government right now and unfortunately they showed their displeasure with indifference, which is really too bad.”
“I was hopeful for a stronger turnout, but at the same time I obviously can't complain with the results, at least personally,” Cockayne said.
He said that President Barack Obama’s campaign last year was “a historical event” that caused voters to feel especially energized and interested.
“Unfortunately, there has been very little to be excited about in the last year and the hope and the change people were looking for has not come,” Cockayne said. “It has been more and more ofbureaucratic gridlock and very little progress.”
“People still feel uninformed and disconnected from Washington and their political leaders in general,” Cockayne said, adding that in Bristol “we can do some positive things and change that perception.”
Mills said that most people probably didn’t pay attention to the election.
“I also believe many people now believe it doesn’t make any difference, and that all politicians just say what you want to hear, then don’t follow through on their promises after the election,” Mills said, adding that officials have to seek “a new trust” that can change perceptions.
Several officials said it would have helped if the newspapers had covered the campaign more.
Mills said, too, that the Press should have had a front page headline Tuesday saying “Today is Election Day.”
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Contact Steve Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org