Voter turnout through late afternoon runs close to 2008 levels

With long voter lines reported in many communities, voter turnout could match the 78 percent mark achieved during the landmark 2008 presidential race, the state’s chief elections official reported late Tuesday afternoon.

“I think we’re going to hit 75 to 80 percent, and we could even be on the high side,” Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill, said just after 4:30 p.m. “There have been lines, pretty heavy voting, all day long.”

Most communities base their estimates for turnout by counting names crossed off registration lists as voters cast ballots, and then comparing those numbers with past elections.

Statewide turnout totaled 78.1 percent in the presidential contest four years ago. Merrill said during radio interviews early Tuesday that she was hopeful Connecticut could match that total, but also conceded that disruptions caused by the recent Hurricane Sandy could keep some away from the polls.

But the secretary’s office also noted that Connecticut has gained 202,000 new voters since January — and nearly 100,000 over the last six weeks alone. Those gains lifted the total number of active, registered voters to close to 2.1 million. This includes: 872,243 unaffiliated voters, 767,693 Democrats and 430,439 Republicans. The total voter list falls about 5,000 shy of the peak Connecticut hit just before the 2008 presidential election.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that we are getting as big of a turnout as we are,” Merrill added. “There’s just a really strong interest in this election.”

Merrill’s spokesman, Av Harris, said several communities reported voter lines longer than the typical 30-45 minute wait that often develops during peak voter periods in a presidential election.

Merrill’s office sent extra poll workers to assist officials in West Hartford after waits of longer than 90 minutes were reported during the morning. But some of those delays also could be attributed to a local decision to dramatically consolidate the number of polling precincts from 23 down to nine.

But Harris noted that some waits of 45 minutes or slightly longer were reported in New Haven.

Merrill’s also received a report that Hartford officials might be running low on provisional ballots. The office is investigating and will provide more ballots, Harris added.

And the president of the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, Melissa J. Russell, said voters were lined up 40 people deep to cast ballots in her hometown of Bethlehem during the morning work commute and as late as 11 a.m. — an unusually large number for the small, rural town in northwestern Connecticut.

“We’re down just a little bit from four years ago, but we’ve still been very busy,” she said. “Those were some long lines for us.”

Those hoping to cast ballots at Cheshire High School around 11 a.m. waited 30 to 40 minutes, leading more than one prospective voter to head back out the door.

“This is going to take hours,” one man in a Yankees jacket said as he eyed the crowd, an exasperated tone in his voice. “I’m not going to be able to vote.”

Not everyone was dismayed by the crowd.

“Wow, this is good news!” U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy said as he made his way toward the back of the line with his wife and two young sons. Murphy, a Democrat who lives in Cheshire, is running for U.S. Senate against Greenwich businesswoman Linda McMahon.

As it turned out, Murphy’s wait wasn’t as long as anticipated. Cheshire, like several other towns, divided its lines by street name, and the Murphys mistakenly got in the wrong line, the longer of the two. Elizabeth Esty, who is running for Murphy’s 5th House District seat and who lives near the congressman and happened to be voting around the same time, pointed out that he was in the wrong line.

“Look at the service that Elizabeth Esty provides,” Murphy announced.

“I saved him half an hour,” Esty told an aide.

Murphy spent most of his wait to vote chatting with fellow voters and helping his son, Owen, buy a snack from high school students raising money for Best Buddies, which partners students with special needs with classmates.

Majority Democrats in the state Senate were cautious in the days leading up to the election after witnessing Super-PAC spending fueled by a Fairfield County millionaire attack several Democratic incumbents. The Senate Democratic Caucus has said that spending has topped $500,000 spread across five races.

But Adam Joseph, the caucus’ spokesman, said strong Election Day turnout has been a positive sign.

“We haven’t heard of anything about a catastrophes from our lawyers,” he said. “From what we’ve heard, turnout is good.”

The top Republican in the state Senate, Minority Leader John P. McKinney of Fairfield, said the Super-PAC spending is “fair” and has backed ads that are factually correct.

“I hope it helps,” he said. “The Democrats have been helped by a lot of outside money for years with union support. I don’t hear Democrats screaming about outside money being spent on” their Congressional candidates. “They’re just complaining that it’s being used for a campaign against them.”

McKinney also was encouraged by the strong turnout, hoping it will help Republican efforts to capture two long-held Democratic seats in southeastern Connecticut where the incumbents — Edith Prague of Columbia and Eileen Daily of Westbrook — have retired.

“Those have been hotly contested, and I think both parties are going to be focusing on those seats right now,” McKinney said. “A pickup of those seats would change a lot of what happens in the Senate.”