Connecticut SoS Proposes Eliminating Elected Registrars – and Registrars Don’t Like It

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Connecticut is known as the Land of Steady Habits – and a new habit, it seems, is fighting about what to do about election problems that have plagued the state recently.

Responding to recent Election Day problems in Hartford and Bridgeport, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill proposes to do away with the state’s system of elected registrars and replace them with nonpartisan appointees in each town. Predictably, the targets of those changes aren’t happy about it. The Day has more:

A proposal announced Wednesday by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to overhaul local election structure by replacing elected registrars of voters with a single appointed municipal election official per town brought swift and negative reaction from both veteran and newcomer registrars, who vow to fight any proposed bills to enact the change.

Merrill said her proposal would “improve” local election administration by replacing the current system in which Democratic and Republican nominees are “handpicked” by political town committees to run unopposed in general elections.

Under Merrill’s plan, a municipal employee would be appointed locally to administer elections as “a nonpartisan professional.” Merrill submitted concept legislation to enact the change to the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, which is expected to hold a public hearing in Hartford on March 9.

The plan would require the municipal election official to meet minimum qualifications of at least a bachelor’s degree or four years of experience in election administration and to be certified by the state with yearly training.

The proposal came in response to two recent election controversies in Bridgeport in 2010 and Hartford last November – not enough ballots in Bridgeport and lack of voter lists at the polls in Hartford – which brought national and embarrassing news coverage.

Registrars across the state reacted strongly to the proposal, questioning whether it is necessary – and whether it would be worth the cost:

[L]ocal registrars said problems [like Hartford’s and Bridgeport’s] are rare and can be easily corrected within the current system. They said the current system with at least two registrars of differing parties per municipality is the only way to ensure nonpartisan and fair elections and voter registrations.

Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak said Merrill’s proposal would increase the risk of election fraud and would be more partisan rather than nonpartisan. Slopak called the proposal “a gut reaction” by Merrill to a few bad incidents.

“No matter which party is in power, they’re going to appoint someone from their own party,” Slopak said, “so the other party and the unaffiliated voters won’t be represented.”
Norwich Democratic Registrar Dianne Daniels agreed with those assessments and added that the move would not save money for municipalities – it likely would cost more money. Slopak said if the appointed officials are full-time municipal employees, they also would receive benefits.

“Who’s going to pay for all this?” Slopak said.

Currently, the two Norwich registrars are part-time officials, each earning $26,000 per year, with the office open 26 hours a week, longer as an election approaches. The two have no paid staff, instead relying on volunteer deputies who receive stipends during election time, and the registrars oversee the hiring of election moderators and poll workers. Those workers are paid varying amounts for their one day of work.

If larger towns and big cities reduce to one election official, that person would need paid staff to help run the office and keep election records up to date, Daniels said.

Opponents also questioned the assumption that an appointed official would (or could) be nonpartisan:

Salem Democratic Registrar Sue Spang said she’s not in favor of Merrill’s plan either. Spang understands Merrill’s effort is to “take the politics out” of the office, but she doesn’t think that will happen under the proposal.

“Having someone appointed does not take the politics out of it,” said Spang, who has served 11 years in the office.

If the appointment of a registrar is at the whim of the governing authority – and its majority party – the registrar could be replaced if a different party gains the majority, Spang said. She said the job requires a lot of knowledge to keep up with changing laws and technology, and such turnover wouldn’t be good for elections, both in large cities and small towns.

Melissa Russell, president of the Registrars’ Association of Connecticut, also is a small-town registrar from Bethlehem. Russell said she already has been talking to legislators about other issues to improve local elections without the drastic change proposed by Merrill. She said members of the association plan to speak at the March 9 hearing, arguing instead for a statewide certification system for elected registrars and for better education and technology to improve reporting of election results to the state office.

“I don’t know of a single politically appointed nonpartisan person,” Russell said.

While the current nature of the debate is predictable – group of people threatened with losing their jobs doesn’t like it – it’s notable that both sides seem to agree that better education of local election officials is part of the solution going forward. Here’s hoping that doesn’t get lost in the crossfire over who will run elections in Connecticut – and who gets to decide.

1 Comment on "Connecticut SoS Proposes Eliminating Elected Registrars – and Registrars Don’t Like It"

  1. This is just another instance of Connecticut’s fiefdom problem. Connecticut has what many states want — small towns with center villages and participatory local government. But it’s both a blessing and a curse: as a result of town power, state government is hopelessly weak.

    The SOTS office barely has any responsibilities over elections; instead, there are over three hundred local registrars of voters. “Educate the registrars better” is a classic Connecticut answer to the problem: make an incremental improvement without considering — even at all — the root of the problem.

    Moving anything to the state level is a difficult political lift despite our state’s small population of 3.5 million, which makes state administration most efficient for big tasks. When it comes to conflicts between towns and the state, too many put their town first.

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