Problems at the Polls Highlight Limitations of Locally Operated Election System
The debacle in Hartford on Tuesday morning, which delayed the opening of some polling places, as well as the ballot shortage in Bridgeport during the 2010 election, have highlighted weaknesses in Connecticut’s localized election system.
Many voters don’t realize that their local Registrars of Voters are virtually autonomous once elected, except for the funding they receive from their towns.
“It’s very difficult to change any system,” Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said Wednesday. “Especially one that’s locally based.”
Elections are run by local election officials. Merrill’s office serves in an advisory capacity, but in general does not certify results until a few weeks after the vote. Until that time, local election officials continue to modify the election returns they submit by fax machine to Merrill’s office.
Critics say that process is antiquated and erodes public confidence in the election results. There were times on election night last week when candidates were televised declaring victory while the figures appearing on the lower third of the screen indicated that only a fraction of the precincts had been counted.
Further, at Tom Foley’s celebration, supporters were dumbfounded when Malloy appeared on television at 12:30 a.m. to declare victory, but the results appearing on the screen below Malloy’s image still had Foley ahead.
Will technology save the day?
Merrill said there’s a new election results management system coming online next year that should help alleviate some of the problems obtaining data from each town. Her office did not try this year to use software, but it is intended to replace the laborious and outdated process of using paperwork and fax machines to collect the data.
“People transpose numbers all the time,” Merrill said, adding that the next election management system should cut down on some of those mistakes.
Last year, the state tried for a second time to pilot the system, designed by PCC Technology of Bloomfield, in 32 towns. But only 13 of those were able to submit their head moderator results using the program. That meant there were 19 towns that logged in and filed at least one precinct moderator’s return, but did not finish the process by submitting the head moderator’s return. Some of the problem was related to the lack of Internet access at specific polling locations. Filing results via the web also wasn’t mandatory, so there was no incentive to use the web-based form.
As a result, many election officials reverted back to pen, paper, and fax machine to submit their results to the state. Those results are then uploaded as an unsearchable pdf to the state’s website.
“Last year, just in a municipal election year, we had probably 50 amendments,” Merrill said. That means local election officials sent in 50 corrections to their original election returns a week after the polls closed.
“That’s why we don’t certify until the third week in November,” Merrill said.
She said the new management system will allow local election officials to enter everything electronically in advance, such as the names of the candidates and their placement on the ballot, so that on election night “all you have to do is enter those few numbers and everything is done for you.”
In the meantime, the problems in Hartford and Bridgeport highlight the need for more consistent standards, Merrill said Wednesday.
There are local election officials in tiny towns who are paid $5,000 a year to come in once a month and maintain that town’s voter registration system and then run the election on Election Day. On the other end of the spectrum, there are big cities like Hartford “where you have three registrars, three deputy registrars, a raft of people, and really a very kind of odd electoral process whereby they’re elected, but really chosen by their parties to run,” Merrill said.
That’s not to say there aren’t really good people out there doing this work, she added.
“But we really do need more accountability,” Merrill said.
Like in previous years, Merrill said she will propose legislation next year to change the system and create more standards.
Also, Merrill said, she has in the past proposed legislation to allow the removal of a registrar. But that effort was unsuccessful.
“Currently, there is no way in statute to remove a registrar, even for cause,” Merrill said, which seems to leave it up to the voters to elect a new registrar two years later for poor performance.
However, Av Harris, Merrill’s spokesman, said that if a registrar is convicted of a felony, he or she loses their right to vote and their elector status, and anyone who loses their elector status is not able to hold public office.
At the moment, no felony charges have been filed against any of the Hartford registrars.
Harris said there is a state law under which you can remove a Town Clerk from office for dereliction of duty, but there is no such law regarding the conduct or misconduct of Registrars of Voters. Harris said Merrill introduced such a bill in the legislature last year, but it died in committee.
And Merrill points out that the registrars are often politically connected and plugged into the political power structure, which makes changing the system hard.
“It has been difficult to make any change,” Merrill said. “Up till now there hasn’t really been any compelling event that has happened to really highlight the system.”
State law dictates that local registrars are responsible for delivering the voter checklists to the polling places before 6 a.m. the morning of the election. In Hartford, those lists did not arrive until 7:30 a.m. at some polling locations, according to court testimony.
Merrill, who votes in Hartford, arrived at her polling place at 6:15 a.m. and had to fill out an affidavit affirming her identity in order to vote, because the voter checklist was not available.
“I see very little way a registrar could fail to get the lists to the polls,” Merrill said.
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Carl Schuman ordered Merrill’s office to investigate what occurred in Hartford, and Merrill’s office filed a complaint with State Elections Enforcement Commission against the Hartford Registrars of Voters, alleging “gross misconduct” as well as:
What actually happened in Hartford?
That question remains unanswered, and Hartford’s three Registrars of Voters have failed to comment on the issue. Working Families Party Registrar of Voters Urania Petit released a statement Friday saying she had been focused on Election Day Registration Tuesday, but did not blame the Democratic Registrar or Republican Registrar for the checklist problem.
But during a hastily arranged press conference on Election Day while party lawyers were in court seeking to extend the voting hours, Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra placed the blame for the problems at the polls squarely with his city’s three Registrars.
“What transpired at at least 10 voting locations in the city is totally inexcusable and unacceptable and in days to follow we will undertake an investigation to make sure that those who are responsible for that will be held accountable for their actions or lack of actions,” Segarra said.
He added that there are people in the city who have been supporting a reformation of the Registrars office to make it a more professional entity, and added, “I want to do everything possible in the next couple of days to ensure that this never, never happens again.”
Closing out the press conference, Segarra said that in a city that struggles with poverty, the “only one thing that our residents have that is of equal wealth to anyone else in this state, is their vote. And we need to protect that.”
Moments later, just inside City Hall, Segarra scoffed when asked about reports that a printer malfunction had prevented the Registrars from producing the voter checklists on time.
“We have resources and in case of emergency people have our cell phone numbers,” Segarra said. “We have plenty of printers inside City Hall.”
Earlier, he had been asked if the Registrars had contacted him to let him know they were having a problem printing the lists. Segarra said the first he’d heard about it was through calls from constituents shortly after 6 a.m. when their polling places were supposed to open, letting him know they were unable to vote.
Asked if he planned to ask for the Registrars’ resignations or if the city’s charter gave him leeway to try to force them out, Segarra said he hadn’t made that decision yet but was looking into it.
On Wednesday, Segarra and members of the Hartford City Council put forward two resolutions. The first calls on the council to create a committee to investigate what happened, and the second calls on a committee to examine the findings and make recommendations for reform.