CHATHAM – Nearly two years after it dipped below 6,000, the town's official population figure has once again risen above that milestone, thanks to last month's presidential election.
It's not unusual for voter registration to spike during a presidential election year, said Town Clerk Julie Smith. That in turn leads to an increase in the official count of the total number of residents in town, which is based both on voter registration and the annual town census.
While the official population figures have been fluctuating by a couple of hundred over the past few years, the actual number of residents probably doesn't change all that much year to year.
As of the end of November, the total number of residents in town was 6,168, according to Smith. The figure includes more than 219 new voters who registered during the year as of Nov. 1. A few more registrations in November upped the figure to 6,171 as of this week.
At the end of 2015, the total number of residents was 5,970. The town's population first slipped below 6,000 – for the first time in decades – in 2014, when the year-end population figure kept by the town clerk's office was 5,978. One year earlier, in 2013, the number was 6,231, and in 2012, the last presidential election year, it was 6,155. The figures track with the increase in registration in presidential election years, Smith said.
The impact of the election can be seen in the number of new voter registrations in October alone. This year, 115 new voters registered; a year ago, in October 2015, there were 25 new registrations.
“The ability to register to vote online helped,” Smith said of the surge in voter registrations. Because of the way the state tracks voter registration, there's no way to break out the number who registered online from other methods, she added.
Chatham has been remarkably consistent in voter turnout during presidential election years. Last month's turnout was 83 percent of the 5,636 registered voters. It was also 83 percent in the two previous presidential elections, Smith said. For the three presidential elections prior to that, the turnout was 78 percent.
Early voting doesn't appear to have altered the turnout. Smith said that 1,659 residents participated in early voting, 29.4 percent of all voters. Another 10 percent voted absentee, meaning that combined, nearly 40 percent of the town's eligible voters cast ballots prior to election day, almost half the final turnout.
But the total number of voters, and residents, will likely decline again over the next few years. Smith said there are many residents who only vote in presidential elections and don't respond to the annual census. Under state law, if residents don't respond to the census or don't vote in annual town or state elections, they can be removed from the voting rolls after being notified by the town clerk's office. Every four years, those people have to re-register to participate in the presidential vote.
The process goes on year-round; in October, for instance, 28 voters were removed from the rolls, a figure which includes people who have moved out of town or passed away.
So while the official number may decline, those residents are still living in town.
Officials say it's important for residents to respond to the annual census, which is sent out in January, because the population plays an important role in many state programs, including grants.