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Following Missteps, Compromise Election Reform Bill Heads To Connecticut House

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Update: On Monday evening, the House approved the legislation 126-20. The bill now heads to Governor Dannel Malloy to be signed into law. 

An election reform bill is moving through the Connecticut legislature, stemming from issues at polling places in Hartford this past Election Day. The proposal would give the Secretary of State’s office more power over Connecticut’s partisan registrar system.The bill allows the Secretary of State to temporarily relieve a registrar of his or her duties while also setting up an avenue for removal from office. Connecticut senators approved the legislation 36-0 last week. Denise Merrill is Connecticut’s Secretary of State.

“The problem has been that it’s very difficult to get standard treatment for all voters across all those towns,” Merrill said. “There have been several notorious cases in Connecticut of a breakdown in our process. So I think this is going to go a long way. There is training and certification required and there is now going to be a removal process and a way that our office can step in if people are not following the law in advance of the election rather than after the fact.”

Merrill, a Democrat, originally proposed legislation doing away with Connecticut’s election system where two people, typically one Republican and one Democrat, are elected as registrars in each town. Instead she wanted each municipality to hire one registrar to oversee elections in hopes of professionalizing the position statewide. That idea was met with opposition from the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut and some Republican lawmakers.

“I still believe it should be one appointed person who is qualified,” Merrill said. “But I think once we get this required certification and training in place it will go a long way to getting me where I want to be which is having fully qualified people running the election at the local level who know the law. It was enough for me for this year. We’ll have a task force. We’ll keep looking at it and maybe at some point we’ll go back to that idea.”

Melissa Russell is the Registrars of Voters Association president and also serves as the Republican registrar for the town of Bethlehem. She says a sole registrar in town would become loyal to the town’s leaders, not the voters, and therefore not solve any partisan issues.

“The registrars came up very strong at the public hearing back in March,” Russell said. “There were over a hundred of us who came out and either showed support and/or testified. This final version of this bill was produced with the registrars sitting down with the Secretary’s office, town clerk’s associations and the chairs of the GAE committee to work out something we could live with and be happy with.”

Office politics and unprofessional actions have been blamed for improper vote tallying, inadequate supplies of ballots and opening polls late in places like Hartford and Bridgeport. Secretary of State Merrill says those incidents and others drove the need for change.

The new bill requires the state’s 339 registrars to pass certification courses and undergo yearly training to be developed by the Registrars Association and the state.

With the current party-affiliated registrar system still in place, Russell says the bill will streamline and modernize the state’s elections.

“This bill includes a lot of things that registrars have been asking for a number of years including better technology, internet reporting, certification and more training for our registrars,” Russell explained. “Also an electronic method of conducting post-election audits.”

To remove a registrar, the Secretary of State’s office would refer a matter regarding misconduct, neglect of duty or incompetence to the State Elections Enforcement Commission to conduct an investigation. The commission could refer the case to the Attorney General who could bring action seeking removal to Superior Court where a hearing would follow. The Secretary could temporarily remove a registrar who is the subject of an investigation regarding his or her duties. Russell says the bill provides enough due process to protect registrars as well.

The bill unifies voter registration deadlines to one week before Election Day while also allowing local election officials to use online voter registration systems to enroll people on Election Day. Merrill says the state plans to buy electronic pollbooks for towns with more than one polling place for a cost between $2 and $3 million statewide. She is hopeful the electronic systems are in place for the 2016 presidential election. The bill is now in the House. The General Assembly’s regular session ends Wednesday.

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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