Improving Equality and Justice in New Britain, Starting with Voting Rights

By Tim O’Brien

Columnist

Black Ministerial Alliance of New Britain led the way in bringing people in the community together in a “Community Prayer for Peace Service".

Black Ministerial Alliance of New Britain led the way in bringing people in the community together in a “Community Prayer for Peace Service.” Photo by Tim O’Brien.

As New Britain joined people nationwide in mourning the lives lost in senseless violent acts, the Black Ministerial Alliance of New Britain led the way in bringing people in the community together in a “Community Prayer for Peace Service for those who lost their lives at the hands of Law Enforcement Officers & Law Enforcement Officers who lost their lives at the hands of those they vowed to serve and protect.”

The service was a call for an end to all such violence and, locally, for common effort for understanding among members of the community and between the community and its Police Department.

The Black Ministerial Alliance’s leadership has started a discussion locally that is also happening nationwide about what it means to create an understanding among the people of our community and our nation.

After all, this lack of understanding is not just a misunderstanding – there are real injustices that exist based on race and ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity, to name a few. Of course, communities of color, especially African Americans and Latinos, experience inequality in nearly every aspect of life, including education, housing, jobs and the criminal justice system at every level. These inequalities are not happenstance, nor are they the fault of the people who suffer from them. We need to start having an adult conversation about their real causes.

There are so many aspects of these inequalities and injustices that each deserves its own article. So, this article is dedicated to the manner by which inequality is created in a basic area of American life – voting. When people are denied inequality in voting, they inevitably suffer inequality in all other ways, as well. When people’s voices are not heard at the polls, they are also not heard in the halls of government.

This is why approval of the Voting Rights Act was such an important achievement for the Civil Rights Movement. It is also why the gutting of it by the Republican-dominated Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, has done such great harm.

Even before the Shelby County v. Holder decision, many states were already following a right-wing gameplan to make it harder for people to vote, with a partisan Republican calculus for electoral advantage built on creating rules that fall hardest on communities of color who vote disproportionately for Democrats. Shelby County v. Holder opened the floodgate for all manner of voter suppression, from voter ID laws, to decreased voting hours to changes in polling places, not to mention gerrymandered districts.

A 2008 Democratic Primary Ballot.

A 2008 Democratic Primary Ballot.

And while New Britain’s sitting mayor portrays the city under her brand of Republican governance as immune from this and other policies that expand discrimination, the truth is very different.

In the run-up to the 2013 city election, that brought to power that same Republican mayor; Republican Registrar of Voters, Peter Gostin, was engaging in a purge of the active voter list that was at a brazenly massive scale.

The results of that purge speak for themselves. In November of 2012, the number of people on the active voter list in New Britain was 33,619. By September 16, 2013, weeks before the city elections that year, that number had been stripped down to 24,609.

That means that 9,010 people were removed from the active voter list – more than 1 in every 4 voters.

The purging continued even after 2013. By June 10, 2015, the total number on the active voter list had been brought down to 23,972 (Registrars of Voters data), bringing the loss of voters to 9,647 – approaching a 30% drop.

Since Gostin holds a position, Registrar of Voters, whose very name makes it clear that it is his job to register people to vote, we can fairly say that his job performance, measured by the 9,600 fewer voters, has been an abysmal failure.

But, it would seem likely that Mr. Gostin and his local Republican Party view him as very much a success. Between October of 2012 and September of 2013, the number of Democrats on the voter list was dropped by 3,373, while the number of Unaffiliated voters dropped by 3,369. For context, several weeks later, Republicans won the mayoralty by just over 1,000 votes.

Of course, there is more. Mr. Gostin has made a career of successful and attempted voter suppression. For example, he stridently opposed election day registration for voters and (in his testimony to the state legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee on March 2, 2012) he said that he thought Connecticut’s voter identification rules are “too lax” and “should be revisited” to make them more onerous. In 2012, he attempted to redraw city voting districts in a way that would have decreased the number of polling places serving the center of the city and seniors. Of course, he attempted much the same thing, again, in 2016.

Far from being a liberal version of Republicanism, the current city hall has come to and held power amidst voter suppression at a scale and scope that should make anyone cringe.

All of this is very much front and center in New Britain right now because city Democrats are about to vote in a primary election to determine the next Democratic Registrar of Voters. Since each party gets one Registrar of Voters, it is important that Democrats choose a new Registrar who will address the abuses of Mr. Gostin and fight hard for people’s right to vote.

There are two Democrats competing to be the Democratic Registrar of Voters – Endorsed Democrat and former City Council leader Michael Trueworthy and former Mayor Lucian Pawlak. The people of New Britain should know which one of these two will do the best job advancing what is needed in the wake of the harm that has been done.

For one thing, the new Democratic Registrar should immediately start undoing as much of the damage of Mr. Gostin’s voter purge as possible, seeking out the people who were removed from the active voter list and restoring all who are still residents of the city.

Inside a voting machine from New London.

Inside a voting machine from New London.

Of course, the new Democratic Registrar should actively register people to vote better than any Registrar has before. Rather than being content to sit in an office in City Hall, the new Democratic Registrar must make it the business of the Democratic Registrar’s office to go door to door in New Britain’s neighborhoods to get people registered and encourage them to vote.

The new Democratic Registrar should block Mr. Gostin’s efforts to take away polling places that serve seniors and the people in center of the city. The Democratic Registrar should seek out ways to increase the convenience of polling place access for all voters in the city.

Also, the Democratic Registrar should investigate Mr. Gostin, including but not limited to his voter purges, and hold him accountable for any overt or neglectful harm he has done to the right of New Britain’s people to vote.

While the nation opens a conversation about the very real inequalities that must be addressed in order to bring real justice for all, here in New Britain we have a front and center opportunity to demand that the next person to hold the office most able to protect our right to vote will strongly do so. Far from being a problem distant from and not affecting New Britain’s people, voter suppression has been happening to a massive degree right here.

In the fight for democracy and equal access to it for all, New Britain is right at the front line, and our city’s people must continue to rise up and demand justice in our elections in order to make the fight for justice in so many other areas, also needing action, possible.

Tim O’Brien is Treasurer and a member of the Board of Directors of the New Britain Independent, and is a Columnist for the Independent. He is the former Mayor of New Britain, and also served as State Representative for parts of New Britain and Newington and was a New Britain City Alderman. The views expressed here are the opinion of the author and are not necessarily the views of the New Britain Independent Newspaper, Inc.