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Urgo, Chesebrough call on state to reform voting to attract unaffiliated candidates

The unaffiliated first selectwoman of Stonington and the first selectman of North Stonington, a member of the Independent Party, are calling on the General Assembly to enact a new method of voting that would allow unaffiliated voters to more easily run for office without having to align with a party.

"This is one of the most important things we can do to transform the direction of the country," North Stonington First Selectman Mike Urgo said about ranked-choice voting. "Right now is the time to do it because people are inspired to get involved."

Urgo, who first ran for office as an unaffiliated voter, said he knows people who would run for office if they did not have to worry about being in a party. He said if unaffiliated candidates could more easily run for office, it would mean more choices for voters, offer candidates with better qualifications and result in "kinder" campaigns with less negative advertising and less money wasted on campaigning.

Stonington First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough agreed.

"It's a simple change but it’s not talked about much or understood," she said about RCV, which is used in 11 states for local elections, in five states for primaries and statewide in Maine. "It's hard to get involved if you’re not in a party."

Chesebrough, whose previous job was with the United Nations, would know.

She was only endorsed by the Democratic Town Committee last fall after it could not come up with a party-affiliated candidate. Democratic Town Committee members tried to get Chesebrough to join the party but she refused.

"Many people (like us) don’t feel they fit into a party or just don’t care for party politics," Urgo and Chesebrough wrote in a news release announcing their effort this week.

Currently, the Republican and Democratic parties in the state nominate and bankroll candidates for everything from the local school board to governor. An unaffiliated candidate — 41% of voters in the state are unaffiliated — must collect signatures on a petition to get on the ballot, something party-endorsed candidates do not have to do.

Often, a resident may consider a vote for the unaffiliated or third-party candidate, even if they feel that candidate is the most qualified, as a "wasted vote" that could help elect a major-party candidate they dislike. And in an election with more than the two major candidates, the winner often garners less than 50% of the vote.

"Currently as you both know the two party system really makes it prohibitive from folks who maybe don’t fit into a party or just don’t care for party politics to get involved. If you do not receive a major party endorsement your chances of being elected are near impossible," Chesebrough and Urgo wrote in a letter to state Rep. Kate Rotella, D-Mystic, and state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, asking them to introduce a bill that would implement RCV in the state.

So how does ranked-choice voting work?

Instead of picking one candidate, a voter ranks their interest in candidates by 1, 2, 3 and so on. If one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then that candidate wins and ranked-choice voting doesn’t come into play.

However, if one candidate does not get 50% support, then the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated and a voter’s second choice would get their vote in the next round. This continues until a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote.

With so much happening in the country now and so much focus on change, Chesebrough said it seems like a good time to push for a change in how the state elects people.

"Both of us also talked about how we can get more people involved, as so many people are unaffiliated," she said, adding RCV boosts involvement.

Chesebrough said she realizes getting RCV enacted may be "a long, uphill battle" but she and Urgo’s current effort will raise awareness and help educate voters and legislators about its benefits.

Urgo said it’s not a question of if RCV will be implemented, but when.

"I think it has to happen. It makes it so anyone who feels they want to get involved has a chance and that’s very important," he said, adding that candidates should not have to join a party and possibly compromise their beliefs to get involved.

Asked about RCV, Rotella said Thursday said there is too much business, such as police reform, before the legislature in the upcoming special summer session to consider it. She said it could be raised in next year’s regular session.

"I will look into it. I’m not committed either way," she said. "I want to do some research on it and understand it better."

Somers could not be reached for comment.

j.wojtas@theday.com 

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