Surprised non-Democrat Anthony Carter, with Bella Vista moderator Patricia Solomon. Allan Appel / New Haven Independent

“I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” said May, an 81-year-old Newhallville resident who said she’s voted at Lincoln-Bassett School every election since she bought her home in 1985.

Except she wasn’t a Democrat on Sept. 12. She found out from a moderator that she had been re-registered as an ​“unaffiliated” voter, ineligible to vote in the primary.

May was one of at least dozens of people across the city to find out on Tuesday that they couldn’t vote because they weren’t Democrats. To many, including May, that news came as an inexplicable surprise.

Poll workers and Democratic Party officials at three polling places reported that on Tuesday, more people than usual attempted to vote as Democrats but learned that they were registered as ​“unaffiliated” and therefore could not cast a ballot in the Democratic primary, which saw two-term incumbent Mayor Justin Elicker handily beat challenger Liam Brennan. Citywide turnout in the Democratic mayoral primary was around 23 percent. 

[RELATED: Incumbent Justin Elicker wins New Haven mayoral primary]

Ward 22’s Wexler-Grant polling place and Ward 20’s Lincoln-Bassett polling place turned away at least 10 people each, according to people present at the polls that day.

And at the senior apartment complex Bella Vista — one of three polling places located in Fair Haven Heights’ Ward 11 — moderator Pat Solomon reported that about 30 people, perhaps even more, had tried to vote without realizing that they weren’t registered Democrats. 

A certain amount of confusion is typical. Some longtime local Democratic Party stalwarts said that Tuesday’s numbers are higher than usual.

“I’ve never seen this,” said Dixwell Alder and Democratic Ward Co-Chair Jeanette Morrison, who heard from about 10 constituents that they weren’t able to vote in Ward 22, where 225 people voted in total. A couple of voters reaching out to her about this issue might be normal, Morrison said, but ​“you’re talking about 10? That’s a systematic problem.”

“If you talk to any of the moderators that day, they’re gonna tell you that they turned away a lot of people because they were unaffiliated,” said Bella Vista moderator Solomon on Thursday. ​“It seemed like every time I looked up there was somebody going to the table to be verified.” At that polling place, 183 people successfully voted.

The Registrar of Voters’ office did not have statistics about how many people were turned away from the polls due to their party affiliation (or lack thereof) on Tuesday. Neither did Democratic Town Committee Chair Vinnie Mauro, who said he had heard concerns about newly-unaffiliated voters on Tuesday but could not confirm whether this happened to more people than usual.

Newhallville Ward Co-Chair Barbara Vereen said that she knew of about 10 people who discovered they were unaffiliated at Lincoln-Bassett — more than usual, she said, at a polling place where 295 people voted on Tuesday.

Vereen surmised that some voters may have accidentally changed their registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) when renewing their driver’s license or changing their address — a theory that Mauro echoed. The DMV gives people the option to update their registration when filling out other forms.

According to DMV spokesperson Sean Formica, DMV branches indeed give customers the option to update their voter status. Formica said that per the office’s protocol, those customers would be asked to confirm their registration status and party affiliation on a screen; they’d receive a receipt indicating the details of their voting status, including their political party; and they’d receive a confirmation letter within three weeks from the local Registrar of Voters.

Regarding people unknowingly changing their party affiliation, Formica said, ​“Does it happen? From what I can tell, I guess it is happening. But there are those multiple layers of confirmation.” She said that there’s been no recent update in technology at the department: ​“The process has been the same for quite some time, now.”

Still, Vereen’s DMV theory resonated with May, who asked to only be identified by her first name. May said she had renewed her driver’s license at the department’s Wethersfield branch within the last year.

As someone who takes election participation seriously, May was outraged that she couldn’t vote on Tuesday. ​“This is interfering with my right,” she said.

Sandra Perry, who’s lived in her Dixwell home since 2005, expressed a similar sentiment after also learning, to her surprise, that she was unaffiliated on Tuesday at Ward 22’s polling place. ​“I feel like my rights were taken away,” she said.

“I thought it was important to vote,” she added, holding an enthusiastic Yorkie named Loki at her front porch on Thursday. She said that it ​“may have been a mix-up,” but she still felt frustrated.

On Tuesday, Anthony Carter arrived at the Bella Vista polling place at two minutes to the 8:00 p.m. closing time. He ended up not voting — not because time had run out, but because he, too, discovered he wasn’t a registered Democrat.

Carter indeed had voted last time for a Democrat, but that was in a general election when anyone who is registered can vote. And, he said, he has occasionally swung away from the Democratic party and enrolled as an Independent.

“I had to re-register as a Democrat,” Carter agreed, but he had not done so.

He said he was disappointed not to be able to vote, but still left the polling place with a smile.

On Thursday, Solomon theorized that some people who registered to vote may have checked off that they wanted to enroll in a political party without actually indicating which party they wanted to join.

She urged voters to check their registration status ahead of the Nov. 7 general election to avoid any surprises.

For those wishing to register to vote in time for the general election, both paper and electronic registration forms are due by Oct. 31; same-day registration will also be available.

This story was first published Sept. 15, 2023 by New Haven Independent.