Election Day Issues In Hartford Spark Renewed Conversation About Role of Conn. Registrars

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An embarrassing Election Day oversight in Hartford has state and local officials rethinking how best to staff and oversee election administration in the state’s largest city. The New Haven Register has more:

Yet another embarassing misstep during an election is prompting officials to seriously look for changes on the role of registrars of voters, but the political implications of doing so may prove daunting.

A Hartford registrar of voters failed to get the voting lists to a number of polling stations in that city for the 6 a.m. opening, which meant that some voters were turned away.

Those lists are supposed to be available for inspection by the public a week ahead of time and delivered to the polling sites by 5 a.m. on Election Day.

Among the voters who were able to wait until the list was delivered was Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was delayed a half-hour. Others, however, didn’t have that kind of flexibility and left without voting.

The Democrats then obtained a court order that two polls remain open an additional half-hour Tuesday based on the testimony of people who had to leave.

Secretary of State Denise Merrill, who was re-elected on Tuesday, is calling for an investigation, which has support from other policymakers:

Merrill already has filed a complaint with the State Election Enforcement Commission against the Hartford registrars for the alleged violation of four election law statutes, which her attorney, Ted Bromley, characterized as “gross misconduct.”

State Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, speaking on the Colin McEnroe show on WNPR Wednesday afternoon, said the incident “is inexcusable and I think there will be changes.”

“That office needs to be professionalized and maybe that is the case beyond Hartford, frankly,” he said. “This is just unacceptable in 2014 that people were denied the right to vote in this country. It is beyond embarrassing.”

The scrutiny of Hartford’s registrars is raising questions about the state’s traditional partisan-based election administration system – elected registrars chosen by the major parties (in Hartford, there is also a Working Families Party registrar).

Hartford recently adopted a change to the system, but it faces legal and political challenges:

[V]oters last year approved a charter change to create a one-person appointed registrar of voters to be named by the City Council.

Ritter said, however, that this would also need a change in state law that requires a Democrat and Republican registrar. The current office-holders also could not be replaced in the middle of their terms,

Ritter said when he brought this up to lawmakers at the state Capitol, there was pushback that these political offices would be eliminated. “The conversation got complicated,” Ritter said.

Given the outrage over the Hartford incident on Tuesday, however, Ritter thought a future discussion might go more smoothly.

Still, the idea of just having an appointment by one party “isn’t the easiest of sells to the General Assembly,” he said.

Tuesday’s problems – which affected Gov. Malloy and Sec. Merrill – are feeding calls for reform:

On Wednesday, Hartford Mayor Pedro E. Segarra and City Council President Shawn T. Wooden co-sponsored a resolution that will launch an investigation into why the voting rolls were not available in a timely manner.

Some reports indicated that workers copying the rolls were sent home before the job was finished because of budget problems and a lack of funds to keep them there.

A second resolution asks a subcommittee of the council to make recommendations on reforming the administration of elections. A public hearing would be held on any proposals.

Merrill also was one of the voters who showed up at a poll at the Hartford Seminary where there were no voting lists. She was able to vote by affidavit, essentially swearing she was in the right district.

In a recent interview, Merrill questioned the whole system, particularly since the number of voters who are unaffiliated — a total of 818,389 — constitutes the largest portion of the 1.9 million total.

Hartford’s problems, combined with a ballot shortage that caused chaos in Bridgeport in 2010, is leading Merrill to seek an expanded role for her office to set standards and mandate training for local election offices:

Merrill would like her office to have more authority over elections beyond just giving advice, although that is difficult in a system that is essentially locally based.

She said they have had many problems in getting consistent standards across so many towns, although there are hundreds of registrars doing good work.

Merrill is hoping for at least some incremental changes in the near future.

“We need to look at the system,” she said. “We really do need more accountability.”

Currently, she said, there is no way in statutes to remove a registrar, even for cause.

After the Bridgeport problems, Merrill, who had just been elected, introduced more training and this year gave a series of conference calls where everyone could call in.

She said there are a lot of people who didn’t bother to participate and she believed that Hartford personnel were among that group.

The secretary of the state doesn’t have the authority to mandate participation.

This issue isn’t unique to Connecticut, but given the long history of partisan control of election administration change isn’t likely to come without some controversy. The state has other challenges to address – voters were turned away from long lines to register on Election Day, and a proposed constitutional amendment to allow early voting failed – meaning that the discussion about how to appoint and train registrars is both vitally important and politically charged.

Stay tuned …

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