Ballot mess raises reform questions

Hartford - Nancy Hadley knew something was wrong on Election Day earlier this month when poll workers in Bridgeport handed her a smudged, photocopied ballot.

Unbeknownst to her, the city's real ballots had already run out. Looking back on the fiasco, when poll workers were yelling at one another amid the confusion, she wondered why state authorities did not step in to take control.

"It seems to me the secretary of (the) state should have been down here within an hour of hearing there was a shortage of ballots," Hadley said last week before a bipartisan committee created by Bridgeport's mayor to investigate the voting problems in the state's largest city.

The ballot shortage, which led to confusion over who finally won a close governor's race, also has raised questions about Connecticut law that gives the secretary of the state - Connecticut's chief elections official - very little say over how the state's 169 city and town elections officials run elections.

State lawmakers are expected to take up election reform legislation when the new legislative session convenes Jan. 5, and the issue of who runs the elections may be discussed given the controversies in Bridgeport. But it's unlikely lawmakers will be willing to scrap a decentralized system that's part of a long-standing New England tradition of local control over schools and government.

"I don't think any local government is going to want to have the state to have supervisory power over any local operation," said Anthony Esposito, Hamden's Republican registrar.

There's also doubt about whether the state could even handle the job, never mind afford it given its looming budget deficit problems.

Under the current law, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz says the role of her office is tightly limited.

"This idea that the registrars are the people who run the elections in each town has been around since 1860 and the office of the secretary of the state and the secretary's role since then has been to advise and guide, but I never got any enforcement power," said Bysiewicz, who is leaving office in January.

The local major party committees choose their candidates for the Democratic and Republican registrars of voters, who are themselves elected by the voters. In the case of Hartford, where the Working Families Party is active, there is also a Working Families registrar.

There is no required training for registrars other than a provision in state law that requires them to accumulate education credits by attending classes at the two annual conferences held by the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut.

But Esposito said no one is making sure that registrars attend the training.

He personally thinks the state should consider a countywide approach, which typically involves a county board of elections that hires a registrar to run the elections based on that person's qualifications rather than recommendations from the parties. Esposito said such a system would remove a lot of the politics from the training and supervision of election staff.

"In the present situation, registrars of voters as elected officials answer to no one," Esposito said.

One proposal pending for the new legislative session would require that local registrars order at least enough ballots for every registered voter in their municipality - an effort to avoid a repeat of the situation in Bridgeport where not enough ballots were ordered. But the state association of registrars opposes that for reasons including the cost.

Doug Lewis, executive director of The Election Center, a Houston, Texas-based nonprofit organization that educates its member election officials on rulings and regulations, said most elections across the country are locally controlled to some degree.

In New England, Michigan and Wisconsin, he said cities and towns run the elections. Elsewhere, they are mostly run by county officials. He credits the diffused, localized systems in New England to a historic distrust of monarchy and a fear that an elected state politician could manipulate and control elections.

"That has a nice benefit to it. It also makes it inefficient," Lewis said. "It's not streamlined. It's not a top-down approach. And we're pretty much the only democracy in the world where ours is bottom-up and everyone else is top-down."

Expense and geography have kept the nation's elections from becoming a more centralized process, Lewis said. However, some hybrids have been created. In Oklahoma, he said the state pays employees to work in the counties, but they are hired at the local level.

Lewis said North Carolina has a state election board that can fire an election official, but not hire the replacement.

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