Montville election officials must retrain on voter assistance

Montville — Town election officials must be retrained regarding assistance to voters who are blind, disabled or unable to read or write following a 2017 complaint from a woman who alleged moderators infringed on the voting rights of her husband, who has Alzheimer's disease.

Oakdale residents Linda and Michael Kuja filed the complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission last November, alleging that poll workers failed to permit Mrs. Kuja help her husband cast his votes as allowed by state law.

In her complaint and in an interview Friday, Mrs. Kuja characterized the scene as an embarrassing "three-ring circus show" that resulted in election officials helping her husband in a non-private setting and violating his right to designate her as an assister. She said her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a few years ago but did not need assistance until 2017.

The SEEC recently said it found that the Nov. 7, 2017, incident, which became heated before election officials helped Mr. Kuja at an electronic voting machine, demonstrated improper training but no malice on the part of registrars and election moderators. According to consent orders signed by town election officials in late August, the SEEC issued no fines but the town registrars must submit a training plan before Election Day.

The SEEC said Assistant Registrars Colleen Rix and Jessica Bonin were improperly trained by the town Registrar's office to believe only election officials could assist voters with disabilities, when in fact disabled voters can receive assistance by a person of their choice, including family members.

"The failure of the ... registrars to adequately train elections officials could have a cascade effect on Election Day, leading to multiple incidents," the SEEC wrote.

Republican Town Registrar Dana McFee said election officials would receive retraining in the coming weeks. The town will also install signs at polling locations instructing voters or assisters to alert poll workers of their wishes in advance of heading to the private voting booths, McFee added.

"The bottom line is that it was a very extraordinary circumstance," McFee said. "The individuals at the polling location handled it to the best of their knowledge and unfortunately it escalated."

A message left for Democratic Town Registrar Christine Kutz was not immediately answered.

Three poll workers told the SEEC that the couple did not initially inform them that Mrs. Kuja planned to assist her husband, noting she took two ballots into the voting booth and was filling out her husband's ballot while he stood a few feet away. The SEEC said election officials were correct to approach Mrs. Kuja because the statute on assisters is "very clear that the (voter) be there in the booth."

Mrs. Kuja acknowledged that the couple did not inform poll workers she planned to help her husband until after they approached her. She also acknowledged she was unaware the voter must be in the booth with the assister. She said her husband "was nearby the booth but not right in there."

When approached by assistant registrars, Mrs. Kuja "tore up the ballots" and nearly left the Fair Oaks polling location before officials helped defuse the situation and brought the couple to an electronic voting machine, according to the SEEC. Moderator Carla Chacho-Blanchard assisted Mr. Kuja at the machine, which officials said was a touch screen tablet enabled with braille and audio and hooked up to a printer producing a finalized ballot.

The SEEC said election officials should have let the couple try to vote in the private booth together instead of heading to the electronic voting machine, but the commission concluded Mr. Kuja's privacy was not violated. The SEEC found that Mr. Kuja consented to be assisted by Chacho-Blanchard, who "appeared to have Mr. Kuja's best interests in mind."

"We take our job very seriously," Chacho-Blanchard said Friday. "We are here to protect each and every voter's rights. We weren't discriminating. We wanted to make sure it was his choice."

Chacho-Blanchard noted that registered voters may apply for a permanent absentee ballot due to a number of conditions, including a physical disability or illness that limits one's ability to come to polling locations.

The SEEC can issue civil penalties of $2,000 per offense if a town clerk, registrar or other election official fails to meet their responsibilities. The SEEC declined to do so in the case, and noted the election officials were apologetic, prompt, forthright and had no prior history of similar instances.

Mrs. Kuja said she still believes her husband's rights were violated and that he was unable to privately vote. When told election officials would receive retraining, she said she would likely try to assist her husband vote again this November.

"I'm not trying to cause trouble for Montville," she said.

b.kail@theday.com

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