Unaffiliated voters turn to parties

KEILA TORRES ktorres@ctpost.com
Article Last Updated: 02/05/2008 12:04:20 AM EST

The state's Democratic presidential primary received a last-minute influx of eligible voters as an overwhelming number of state residents, who had been registered as unaffiliated, flocked to their city registrars of voters offices on Monday before the noon deadline to enroll with the party. Bridgeport Democratic Registrar Santa Ayala estimated that about 80 percent of the people that showed up Monday morning were enrolling in a party rather than registering as new voters or looking to change their address. Ayala said three-quarters of those people were changing over from unaffiliated to the Democratic Party.

Although final numbers could not be provided due to a system crash, more than 30 people walked in and enrolled in a party in the last hour of registration alone.

Shelton Democratic Registrar Jack Finn estimated that Shelton's percentage might be even higher. He said about 95 percent of the people he encountered that enrolled in a party during the past few weeks became registered Democrats. Finn said of the 47 people that showed up on Monday morning to change their party affiliation, only five registered Republican. Fairfield Republican Registrar Roger V. Autuori said he has seen the same trend. He said the majority of the people he saw enrolling in a party at the last minute "are in favor of the Democrats."

"We were originally 2,000 ahead of them, now it's less," Autuori said. Of about 80 people that stopped in to register Monday more than 50 joined the Democratic Party.

"A lot of people want to weigh in on a historic choice," said Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. "There's been a lot of interest on the Democratic side because it's been so highly contested between [New York Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton and [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama."

Bysiewicz said the Republican primary might be drawing fewer people because "[Ariz. Sen. John] McCain has become the presumptive nominee." She said the number of statewide unaffiliated voters that enrolled in one of the two major parties within the last 3 months alone is close to 17,000. Only 3,600 of those people enrolled as Republicans.

Voters registered as unaffiliated voters are not eligible to vote in primaries. Bridgeport resident Theresa Avelino, 55, said that she has been unaffiliated for more than 10 years, but this year she enrolled as a Democrat to support Obama. Avelino said she supports Obama because he opposed the war in Iraq. "He didn't vote for our soldiers to go to Iraq," she said.

Avelino said she has a daughter in the Army and she worried that her daughter would be sent to Iraq if the war continues much longer. Shannon O'Neil, 19, a student at Housatonic Community College, said she was switching from unaffiliated to the Democratic Party because she is planning to vote for Clinton. O'Neil said she admired Clinton's stand on health care. "What we need are changes," she said. "We need a woman as president."

Bysiewicz said that more than 34,000 new voters, including more than 8,000 people between the ages of 18 and 29, have also registered for today's primaries. More than 17,500 of the new voters are registered Democrats. Kenneth Neeley, 65, said he has been unaffiliated since he first registered to vote as a teenager. But this time he decided to register to vote in the primaries. But he is not voting for a Democrat. He is voting for McCain.

"I just feel he's the best candidate available," he said. "He's an honest man."

Bysiewicz said when she first decided to move the primary from March to February she was told no candidate would visit the state to campaign. Now, after several visits from Clinton, a visit from both Obama and his wife Michelle, and McCain's visit to Sacred Heart University, Bysiewicz said she now expects a turnout "close to 50 percent." All polls are set to open at 6 a.m. today and will remain open until 8 p.m. Connecticut is one of 23 states holding primaries or caucuses today.