NORWALK – The ongoing and often inflamed debate in Connecticut and the nation over fair elections and voting rights means those holding relevant offices in government need to step up their game when it comes to educating and engaging voters, says legislator and Secretary of the State candidate Stephanie Thomas.
“I don’t think it’s going to be good enough for this job to be what it’s always been,” the first-term Democratic State Representative said in an interview Monday about her decision to run for the office of the state’s top elections official.
“I think civic engagement and civic education is the responsibility of no one right now, and as a result it slips through the cracks. I would very much make that part of my mission.”
Thomas, a New Jersey native who moved to Norwalk about nine years ago, is one of seven Democrats and three Republicans seeking their party’s nomination for the post after incumbent Democrat Denise Merrill steps down after 12 years.
Thomas said she grew up in a home where her parents were fervent believers in “voting in every election,” and is a strong backer of expanding voting rights, including a proposed state constitutional amendment to implement early in-person voting. That ballot question will be put to a vote in the November election.
Connecticut is one of only six states that have no early-voting provision now on the books.
Thomas said that her door-knocking so far has shown that most people are neither aware of the referendum, nor of many basic elements of the current voting process.
“The first question I typically get is what’s a referendum?” Thomas said. “But I think if people know it’s going to be on the ballot and they’re educated around what it means then I think they would vote for it. I believe a lot of people don’t know how to engage with their democracy, and that’s very much a part of why I’m running.”
Thomas, who owns a fundraising consulting business supporting a wide-ranging array of non-profit organizations, is vice-chair of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which oversees all election matters.
She said she has gained valuable insight into voting issues through the committee’s public hearings on such matters as early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and automatic voter registration.
“I really got to hear a lot more from the town clerks, the registrars of voters and the watchdog and advocacy groups like The League of Women Voters,” said Thomas, “but also groups I hadn’t traditionally associated with the voting rights movement — groups like Moms Demand Action,” a gun-safety group.
“It gave me a broader appreciation of how many types of people are thinking about voting rights and election issues — on both sides of the aisle and in their own voice.”
Thomas gives no credence to the claims that the last presidential election was fraudulent, and says that if elected Secretary of the State, she would seek additional funding to increase the office’s reach in making voters aware of their rights and on specific matters that will be decided in elections.
“I feel like we’re in a very troubled place,” she said. “And the only way I know how to counteract that is by creating a culture of transparency and fairness and accountability and consistency that hopefully long-term will win people over.”
Thomas points to the office’s website and to direct mail as ways to accomplish that, as well as the personal energy she said she will devote to increasing voter participation.
“Nothing changes in these United States of America that doesn’t go through the ballot box,” she said. “But I feel like the importance of that is sliding away because we already have natural apathy where in a municipal election, for example, people are happy with 30 percent turnout, right?”
Beyond numbers, Thomas said regaining voter’s trust and interest in elections and government is paramount to reinvigorating a productive national and state dialogue about critical issues.
“I don’t think we get back to a place where we can talk to one another and really believe in our communities again until we understand our civic life and our civic responsibility,” she said. “We can change things, but it has to be through the ballot box.”