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Problems at the Polls Highlight Limitations of Locally Operated Election System

by | Nov 9, 2014 12:38pm
() Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Election 2014, Election Policy, Hartford

Christine Stuart file photo

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill in her Capitol office

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 Her office did not try this year to use software, but it is intended to replace the laborious and outdated process of using paperwork and fax machines to collect the data.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:

  • failure to properly prepare the final registry list, failure to properly prepare and open the polls;
  • failure to properly mark the official registry list regarding absentee ballots;
  • failure to properly implement and follow the voting process;
  • failure to properly transmit the official registry list to the moderator of each polling location, and;
  • neglect of their official duties.
  • 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.

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    Comments

    (18) Archived Comments

    posted by: Luther Weeks | November 9, 2014  7:47pm

    Luther Weeks

    I hope the new reporting system works and is workable. The previous system prototyped twice required too much data entry by each moderator, many after a 17-24 hour day. An improved system will get the data earlier and more accurately, provided time is still taken to double check it in each town before entry and if the system allows the efficient entry of data by refreshed people and their entry is also double checked.

    Anyone who pronounces such a system as ready for general use by moderator’s should be required to use it to enter central absentee results after a long long day.

    There is much to improve in the whole system especially by regionalization. Yet, there is much that could be done in the name of speed and modernization that could make things worse rather than better.

    posted by: dano860 | November 9, 2014  8:33pm

    Heck, we have four polling places, three more than we need. Yet our 85 year old registrar of voters got the job done.
    We need to dump all but one polling place in our town. It’s hard to find people to staff the polls and harder yet to to find anyone less than 70 years old. We’ve had elections where they couldn’t get a balance of Democrats and Republicans at each polling place.
    It takes more than 4 hours to get the counts from the satellite locations to the main office and then they often need amendments due to improper transposing of the numbers.
    If the State is going to get involved they need to establish some guidelines as to the number of polling locations based on population. The new system is suppose to be an improvement but all they did was stick a band aide on a wound requiring surgery. Doing something like having only one polling site for towns with a population fewer than 7999 people (not registered voters). Two for populations of 8K to 17,999 and so on.
    Confusion and incompetence can be reduced significantly by simply reducing the margin of error.
    There is/was no need for the mess in Hartford. In my humble opinion they have far to many locations and far to many fingers in the pie to believe anything accurate will come out of it.
    Reduce locations, streamline the tally process and get some youth behind those tables.

    posted by: Commuter | November 10, 2014  2:11am

    ... Merrill points out that the registrars are often politically connected and plugged into the political power structure, which makes changing the system hard.

    In plain English, these are pure political patronage positions.

    The check and balance is supposed to be that they are elective offices. But that is a joke.

    The system is profoundly… dysfunctional (to apply a term of diplomacy), even when it appears to function.

    We’re talking about the most basic operation of our democracy. The legislature needs to fix this, this coming session. It is not a partisan matter. Support should be overwhelming. No excuses.

    posted by: Karen Cortes | November 10, 2014  7:12am

    Elections are locally administered, but registrars and town clerks are required to follow legislatively prescribed procedures. We are not 169 towns each going it our own way. I would encourage anyone who wonders why election results are slow to be returned, and why multiple corrections are made in the days and weeks (months?) after an election, to peruse Connecticut’s procedure manuals for absentee ballot counters and moderators. You’ll wonder no more.

    posted by: Noteworthy | November 10, 2014  9:37am

    Denise Merrill hasn’t made much of a peep about our horrible, flawed and slow voting process - but she has spent a lot of time and effort trying to dumb down our voting laws. Her priorities are screwed up. Now that she has another two years to get it right and four years before she faces voters again, perhaps all of her focus could be spent on getting the process of voting fixed, figure out how to tabulate votes efficiently so that there is integrity on election day before she works on creating even more confusion.

    posted by: art vandelay | November 10, 2014  9:41am

    art vandelay

    Connecticut HAD a very good system prior to the 2000 fiasco in Florida.  The Federal Elections Commission DEMANDED something be done.  Connecticut in a “Knee Jerk” reaction jumped on the reform band wagon led by Suzi B.  Our “NEW” system was a major step backwards reverting to 18th Century technology the paper ballot.  Personally I do not trust the machines nor the vote count. Too much human involvement.  Connecticut needs a system void of human intervention nor opportunity for fraud.  What’s wrong with a system where your passport or driver’s license is scanned into a computer that verify’s residence and most importantly CITIZENSHIP!  Airports & US Customs does it every day.  Once your vote is cast it’s locked into a local computer then connected by either a land or cell line to a state central computer where the tally from each local machine is verified. The results could be tallied within an hour after the polls close.

    posted by: Luther Weeks | November 10, 2014  11:11am

    Luther Weeks

    As an experienced central count absentee moderator I would like to point out a few things:
    1) Our absentee procedures are no more complex than other states. Actually simpler than those that require that signatures be matched with those on file.
    2) When we had lever machines, and if we changed polling place technology, we would still need paper absentee ballots.
    3) The only difference with absentee ballots now is that we have scanners to help count them faster and more accurately. Much more quickly than by hand counting.
    4) Absentee ballot counting can start at 10:00am, when 95+% are available. In a well organized operation, all there is to do at 8:00pm is to process a few that came in at the end of the day, print machine tapes, and complete paperwork. That should not take more than a couple of hours.
    5) You can pretty well predict the number of absentee ballots based on those that are requested, so you can staff accordingly to get the job done.
    Finally, there are good reasons we have voter verified paper ballots in polling places as well as for absentees- they provide a much more secure and auditable vote, over all its a much less costly technology, its less likely to cause long lines (check-in is a separate issue), and paper ballots can be used despite machine and power failures etc.

    posted by: Bethy | November 10, 2014  5:09pm

    Bethy

    Thank Luther Weeks…and you’re definitely spot on!

    posted by: One and Done | November 10, 2014  5:53pm

    Everyone is too quick to assume that things aren’t working exactly the way they intend them to.

    What better way to ensure the outcome you chose by stacking the deck with your handy election day photo copier.

    Detroit, here we come.

    posted by: art vandelay | November 10, 2014  8:34pm

    art vandelay

    @One and Done,
    Most Conservatives now believe Connecticut will become the next Detroit in four short continued years of Malloy’s economic policies.
    I’m convinced it will not happen for one reason and one reason only.  Malloy has an economic staff who will always predict surpluses no matter how much the Democrats spend.  In essence the Democrats have for the next four years an open checkbook with an unlimited money source.  All Malloy has to do is change the numbers as he had done for the past four years. 
    Watch! Next June our state will be projecting massive surpluses.

    posted by: shinningstars122 | November 10, 2014  9:51pm

    shinningstars122

    @art your economic crystal ball is completed clouded with Fox News dooms day predictions.

    What is your factual argument to compared what happened in Detroit to what you think will happen in CT?

    I mean would your predictions have been any different if Foley won and kept spending flat for two years?

    Would that make all the difference?

    Maybe throwing out that $250 business start up tax Foley proposed would help your fuzzy Koch brother math?

    You have no evidence nor do you use any logic to think that Malloy will not easily do the very same thing when it comes to the budget or even exceed the demands of the private markets and the tax payers.

    You want Connecticut to fail for your own self-serving and partisan reasons.

    Lucky for us, the working majority, we are Yankees and not sheep heading to the slaughter.

    posted by: art vandelay | November 10, 2014  11:00pm

    art vandelay

    @SS122,
    First off I’m not “Captain”.  Art would do fine.  Second I’m just as logical as Malloy has been with the state’s economy these past 4 years.  You leftists claimed Reagan used
    “Voodoo” economics,  Malloy’s is “Voodoo” economics on STEROIDS!

    posted by: Doug Hardy | November 10, 2014  11:58pm

    FROM THE EDITORS:

    Art - our apologies for not catching the name calling in those comments. We generally delete name-calling as that’s a violation of our comment policy, which I recommend everyone re-read here.

    In fact, we’ve deleted quite a few comments that were overly bitter or mean-spirited these last several days. And we’ve also allowed some folks to gloat a bit, maybe a little too much, and we’ve gone ahead and deleted some of those gloater comments as well where we felt it was necessary.

    That said, we have approved more than 350 comments since 11/3 ... (that’s far more than we ever anticipated receiving in such a short period back when this site was launched nearly 10 years ago).

    Call us old fashioned but we’re looking for a constructive dialogue here. We’re looking for civility. We’re not looking for people to post the same partisan comment over and over, or to rip each other, or to make blanket, negative statements about whole segments of the population based on partisanship. We also don’t appreciate it when people try to post unfounded allegations or otherwise libelous statements. And we don’t typically post links to other sites that are not credible, or which contain malware, or which have previously stolen our work, etc.

    Best way to proceed as a commenter is to 1) use your real name or 2) failing that, just assume that you are not anonymous and that you’re talking to people face to face at the diner or the coffee shop and they know your name. That should bring about an appropriate level of mutual respect and civility. Rather than trashing each other, the phrase “agree to disagree” is a great way to accept an impasse and move on.

    Lastly, if you don’t like your comments being moderated, you can share links to our stories and op-eds on *your* social networks and comment there. That way we’re not responsible for anything you say.

    Thanks everyone for reading the site and joining in the discussion.
    -doug hardy, biz manager

    posted by: sofaman | November 11, 2014  8:53am

    Comment moderation is a difficult and thankless task on the most benign web sites, I’m sure it’s a hot mess here.

    There are some, but few that carry the conservative cross more assertively than Art, but I can’t say I remember a nasty or hurtful post he’s ever made. Food for thought.

    But, in the spirit of good-natured jabs, Art, it is none other than GHW Bush who coined the phrase of the wholly disproven Supply Side Economics as “Voodo Economics” .

    Let’s create a tax structure that allows the rich to become super rich and they will become the Job Creators god put them on earth for? Yeah, how’s that working out?

    posted by: One and Done | November 11, 2014  9:02am

    @Art.  Illegal accounting tricks aside, the ratings agencies will reduce our bond ratings very shortly.

    The story no one is reporting on right now is how the Fed hasn’t paid us nearly what they promised to for out Obamacare payouts.  Someone at CTNewsJunkie dared to report on it, but they trapped her clap in short order with some bogus excuses.

    They hid it very well for the election, but this story breaking is inevitable and it will break the budgets of all Obama suckups like Malloy who listened to his lies. 

    By the letter of the law, the FED owes CT nothing because we acted outside of the law based on guidance from HHS.

    Don’t worry, it’s only a billion dollars from last year we are talking about.

    We’ll just print a few more scratch offs and voila.  Or the Republican led Congress will feel bad for us and give us the money we should not have spent.  Take your pick.

    posted by: art vandelay | November 11, 2014  10:29pm

    art vandelay

    @sofaman,
    Thanks so much for your kind words. Greatly appreciated.  I just call things as I see them.  I also try to make points from a Conservative & Historical perspective.  I try not to attack my fellow contributors who have different views than me on a personal level. I may question their judgement or rational, but never on a personal basis I hope.  If I have, my sincere apologies.

    FYI SS122,
    I visited the FDR Library at Hyde Park today.  The National Park Service just completed an extensive renovation.  I believe you will truly enjoy a visit.  The curators transformed the Library into a National Shrine dedicated to the creation of Socialism.  The Library highlights FDR’s creation of social programs such as the NRA, WPA, Social Security, REP & CCC.  I realize the Federal Government had to take a more involved role in increasing the GDP & lowering unemployment after the Great Depression.  I have no issues with that.  What I did have an issue with was the interpretation a visitor came away with of the Government getting the US out of the Depression and not WWII. It’s like Revisionist Historians professing to today’s students that the sole purpose of the Civil Was was to free the slaves.  In fact the true purpose of fighting the War was to preserve the Union.  It wasn’t until after Lincoln had a somewhat victory at Antietam did slavery come into a forefront.

    posted by: shinningstars122 | November 12, 2014  5:59am

    shinningstars122

    @Art you do have quite the sense of humor.

    I am surprised you did not commit a spontaneous act of civil disobedience to protest the heresy of this national landmark.

    One of the major issues with the Great Depression was fear and lack of action by anyone.

    Herbert Hoover simply sat on his hands and did nothing trusting that the “markets” would fix these ” problems” themselves.

    This is just one thing he said about it.
    “Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement. Economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body - the producers and consumers themselves.”

    Boy was he wrong.

    The financial institutions had gone off the deep end in regards to risks they were taking, the banks and the markets, were simply incapable of ” correcting” this behavior themselves and tens of millions were thrown into poverty.

    Fast forward to the September of 2008 and not much has changed. WS and the big banks still needed the Fed to bail them out and it is still going to this very day.

    Case in point how many years have the markets enjoyed zero interests on short term borrowing?

    Soon me and my significant other will be making the pilgrimage to that very same site to appreciate FDR role in American history.

    @Art and the correct word to describe FDR’s legacy is progressivism not socialism.

    Plus there is saying that I think all passionate folks on this site should consider moving forward.

    “Be here now.”

    posted by: Commuter | November 12, 2014  6:00am

    @art vandelay - WWII did not end the Great Depression, but the spending and resulting employment and consumption did.

    This is a crucial fact that those who describe themselves as conservatives almost always fail to accept, usually out of ignorance; but some who are actually knowledgeable about the economy because they are ideologues, and acknowledging that deficit spending is what did it undermines their agenda.

    In other words, while there are limits to his views, as the post-Marshall plan, post oil embargo stagflation demonstrated, Keynes was right.

    Counter-cyclical spending by the federal government in a fiat money regime is an appropriate response to large-scale economic downturns.

    And, by the way, it is not dependent upon borrowing or taxes, as state government and all other microeconomic entities’ spending is. But that is another discussion.

    The problems we’re faced with are neither the result of, nor will they be remedied by changing, the level of taxation we currently have. That is just a fact.