Registrar system needs oversight

Registrar of voters has to be one of the few positions in which a person can be completely derelict in his or her duties, fail to meet the most fundamental requirements of the job, and still not worry about being fired.

Short of a felony conviction, a registrar can't be removed. That needs to change.

The issue of removing a registrar took on more than a theoretical interest after Bridgeport ran out of ballots in 2010. Now we have the registrars in the state's capital city messing up the 2014 election there by not doing their jobs properly. Moreover, there are many registrar jobs in Hartford. Six, to be precise, a Democrat, a Republican and a Working Families registrar and a deputy registrar for each of them.

Yet, they couldn't get their act together in order to do the only important job a registrar has and that is getting the polls up and running on time on Election Day. There were reports that a couple of polls were not open because the moderator did not show up. Additionally, as many as 10 of the city's 23 polling places could not open by the mandated 6 a.m. because they did not have on hand their voting lists. Those are the lists of eligible voters election officials check when you give them your name and address before getting your ballot. If your name is there, an official crosses it out to prevent someone else from using your identity to vote. If your name is not, you don't get a ballot, at least not until any problem can be straightened out.

But in Hartford, voters who arrived around 6 had to wait as long as 45 minutes for the lists to arrive from the registrars' office in City Hall. Other voters left and some probably did not return to vote later in the day. A judge did order two polling places to remain open an extra half hour, but only a handful of voters knew of the extra time and showed up to vote.

Last Tuesday, when final results were due, the Hartford registrars sought a 30-day extension to continuing counting votes. Denied extra time, they filed a report showing nearly 100 more absentee ballots than had previously been disclosed.

The Hartford City Council has ordered an investigation of the office.

Among those inconvenienced Election Day were Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Attorney General George Jepsen and Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, the state's top election official. In reality, Connecticut has 339 top election officials, two in 168 towns and cities and three in Hartford.

State law requires that elected registrars run elections on the local level. The registrars represent the parties that received the most and second most votes in the last election. That's normally the two major parties but in Hartford, where the Republican Party is nearly extinct, the Working Families Party gets the second most votes. However, the law also says both the Democratic and Republican Parties have to have their own, paid registrars, regardless of how they do in elections. Unaffiliated voters, the largest bloc of voters, do not have a registrar.

The town committees nominate registrars, typically deserving Democrats or Republicans looking for full or part-time work. They have no particular training and are not required to get any, although the secretary of the state provides training and advice for those interested.

It is common for a registrar to be someone with ties to party leaders. Gov. Malloy's brother is the Stamford Democratic registrar and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman's husband has the same job in Tolland.

If you conclude from all of this that the system is devoted to the comfort and protection of the political parties, rather than the voters, you may be on to something.

Secretary Merrill is critical of the system, though after Bridgeport ran out of ballots in 2010 and seven citizen complaints were made about the Hartford registrars in the past five years, her office might have watched these cities more closely.

After Bridgeport, Secretary Merrill did propose creating a method to remove a registrar. After the General Assembly rejected the idea, she told the Hartford Courant she doubts the legislature and the governor's office have "the political will" to do it. "We're talking about vested interests here," she said.

We believe the state should have the ability to not only remove incompetent registrars but also the authority to take over a failed registrar operation, just as it can take control of a failing school system. Elections are that important.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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