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Changes should improve election confidence

There is nothing more important to representative government than fair elections. It frustrates this newspaper that so many individuals fail to exercise their right to vote. Yet it was encouraging to see the legislature, prodded by new Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, approve election reforms aimed at improving the electoral process.

Connecticut came perilously close to a disputed election for governor last November. The Democrat, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, defeated Republican challenger Tom Foley by just 6,404 votes, a margin equal to about 0.56 percent of all votes cast. Mr. Foley did not concede for nearly a week, with good reason. Election Day in Bridgeport proved a fiasco, with registrars running out of ballots, voters turned away from the polls, confusion about procedures and a court order extending voting hours.

While Bridgeport received the most attention, other communities saw voting problems as well, including ballot shortages. Had the election been much closer, Mr. Foley could have chosen to legally challenge the results, casting doubt over the legitimacy of the process and delaying the time the new governor had to work on the state's serious fiscal problems.

Given the Bridgeport debacle some still question the fairness of that election, though we are confident in the end it was clear who won. Yet such doubts are not good for our form of government.

That is why we urged the legislature to pass reforms and applaud it for doing so in bipartisan fashion.

The Office of the Secretary of the State will now have to validate that municipalities have ordered the printing of enough ballots, basing its assessment on past voter turnouts. Any municipality failing to file a report must order enough ballots for every registered voter.

The secretary's office will also provide municipal voting officials with a model emergency plan outlining how to deal with unexpected problems, such as power outages at voting stations or having voting interrupted by a calamity. All communities will have to have emergency plans for Election Day, using the model provided, but will be free to adjust plans for their own special needs.

Another law change will allow the secretary of the state to enter a polling location on Election Day and remove a moderator for cause, such as intoxication or willfully refusing to follow procedure. Up until now the secretary, though charged with running state elections, had no authority to intervene.

Critically important are plans by Secretary Merrill to improve training on election rules and protocols for poll workers, registrars and town clerks. Money is also being set aside for maintenance of ballot-scanning machines, which began replacing the old lever machines nearly a decade ago. To pay for training and equipment maintenance, Secretary Merrill's office has received $1.23 million in federal grants under the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress following the controversial presidential election in 2000.

Unfortunately, the legislature failed to pass along to voters a proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to consider changes aimed at boosting voter turnout. Given current constitutional restrictions, Connecticut cannot even consider such reforms as early voting or making the rules for obtaining an absentee ballot easier. We urge lawmakers to approve an amendment in the 2012 session. Voters would have the final say on a proposed amendment.

The changes the legislature did approve are significant and will reduce the chances of repeating the embarrassing mistakes seen last November.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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