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Proposed Overhaul Of Connecticut Registrar System Being Criticized

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Following issues at polling places in Hartford this past Election Day, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is proposing to scrap Connecticut’s partisan registrar system. But, the ideas are being met with opposition.Secretary Merrill is calling for Connecticut to do away with the current election oversight system where two people, typically one Republican and one Democrat, are elected as registrars in each town. The Democrat says problems exist across Connecticut although issues in Hartford and Bridgeport – where dysfunctional working relationships and an inadequate supply of ballots have gotten the most attention in recent years.

“Right now we have towns where they sort of don’t fulfill the reporting requirements,” Merrill said. “They will fail to report their election results in a timely way. We have more like workplace situations where one will be able to do the job very well and the other just never comes in the office. At this point, because they’re both elected, there’s no one that can resolve those issues because they’re not directly responsible to the town management and they’re not directly responsible to my office.”

Under Merrill’s legislation, each municipality would hire one registrar to oversee elections. Melissa Russell, president the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, says in a state where Democrats hold a 16 percent party registration edge over Republicans, having just one registrar doesn’t solve any partisan issues.

“I think it’s very, very hard to imagine a non-partisan person whose been politically appointed and who can be fired essentially,” Russell said. “They have somebody who can fire them if they’re not doing the job or if they’re not doing what the town fathers would like them to do. So the loyalty ends up not being to the voters it ends up being to the people who appointed you.”

Forty-two percent of registered voters in Connecticut are unaffiliated. Russell, who also serves as the Republican registrar in the town of Bethlehem, says registrars do not act in partisan ways in the current system because each political party has a set of eyes on the election process. While she says it might help, Secretary Merrill says her proposals are not so much to remove partisanship from the process, but to guarantee professionalism. Her idea is to require registrars have a bachelor’s degree or four years experience in election administration as well as undergo yearly state training.

“Then we’d be able to hold things accountable when they go wrong,” Merrill said. “As it is now, we have many registrars who for example don’t use computers and that makes it very difficult to manage when you have a statewide voter registry that’s all computerized.”

Russell says the Registrars of Voters Association has been calling for and working with Merrill’s office on certification programs.

“We also think that there are some technological improvements that can be made that she’s also in agreement with,” Russell said. “So we actually do agree more than we disagree with her. It’s just this one particular big issue.”

Merrill says shifting to one registrar will save communities money by making it possible for a registrar to work in multiple towns. She adds that current registrars would be perfect for the job since they have experience.

Since making her proposals, Merrill has drawn criticism from Republicans such as Representative Richard Smith. In response to Merrill questioning the actions of some registrars, the ranking House member on the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee had this to say.

“She needs to look in the mirror first before we can actually start pointing fingers at others,” said Smith.

A similar comment was made by the chairman of Connecticut’s GOP.  They are referring to an ongoing investigation into Merrill’s office and reports in the Hartford Courant that Merrill allowed a Bridgeport Democratic leader to remain a notary despite failing to report felony drug convictions. Merrill says there’s nothing to such statements.

“That’s just politics at work as far as I can tell,” Merrill said. “I don’t think there’s anything to any of that and it doesn’t matter. It has nothing to do with election process.”

Smith is in favor of more certification and training, but says it’s unlikely Merrill’s proposed shift to a one-registrar system is enacted. He says having two registrars creates a system of checks and balances.

“There is definitely room for improvement and I applaud the secretary for making some suggestions to have our elections work better,” said Smith.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Steve Cassano, co-chair of the elections committee, told the Hartford Courant he doesn’t think Merrill’s proposed overhaul will be voted into law this year. He added that reforms are needed and that some improvements offered by Merrill could be accomplished. A committee public hearing on the proposals is set for March 9th.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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