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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    Meltdown: Overheated voting machines and poll workers disrupted last week’s primaries

    Voting machines throughout the state were damaged on primary Election Day due to high temperatures, election officials said this week.

    Norwich and Stonington registrars told The Day that multiple machines at polling locations in the two municipalities malfunctioned during the state’s primary election on Aug. 9. Approximately 50 machines were affected throughout the state, according to the Secretary of the State’s office. Machines that were not at air-conditioned polling locations partially “melted,” officials say, and were unable to tabulate vote totals.

    With low voter turnout and only Democratic and Republican primaries for the Secretary of the State and U.S. Senate, Norwich and Stonington election workers were not made to stay much later than usual to count ballots, and none of the vote counts were affected by the machine errors.

    Norwich had four tabulator machines “melt down” at two separate locations on Aug. 9, according to Republican Registrar Cheryl Stover. The malfunctioning machines were at Moriarty Elementary School and Stanton Elementary School.

    “At first we began opening new tabulators not knowing what was going on. Once we lost more tabulators we realized something is happening due to the heat,” Stover said. “At the end of the day we opened tabulators in air-conditioned facilities and ran all those ballots through. We only had to do that for one of our stations. We had three tabulators at that specific location that melted down during the day, so we were unable to get any numbers off of them because they were completely nonfunctional.”

    “All those ballots came back to the office, where we have air conditioning,” Stover continued. “We opened a new tabulator, ran our ballots through, and got our numbers for that station.”

    Stover said also that many poll workers were physically impacted by the heat.

    “We had to pull some of them out to get them into air conditioning,” she said. “It definitely affected our workers in a negative way. Some became sick and were vomiting, some of them were dizzy and faint, I’m sure other towns had similar issues.”

    Stover said the registrars’ office is “in the process of trying to locate more facilities that have air conditioning so we can eliminate this problem.”

    Stonington Republican Registrar Peggy Roberts said two machines in town were damaged.

    “Our first problem arose at Stonington Fire Department at two in the afternoon during a really hot part of the day,” she said. “We didn’t have any fans going in there. In some of the towns where they pointed fans at machines, they didn’t melt down. At first we didn’t know what the problem was, but then we understood it was overheating. We have backup machines for all the polling places in Stonington, so we remedied the problem that way.”

    Another machine malfunctioned at Pawcatuck Middle School around 6 p.m.

    “We have moderators who are used to solving problems, but this was unusual, because the rubber on the roller was liquifying and leaving a stain on the ballot,” Roberts said. “The machines are getting a little older and I know that [former Secretary of the State Denise Merrill] has talked about a plan for replacing them in the near future. Now that she’s not running again, it’ll be left to the new secretary to do that.”

    According to an emailed statement from Secretary of the State Mark Kohler, none of the state’s election results were affected by the machine errors. He said that the exact issue was “some of the adhesive that is placed on the rollers to assist the machine in pulling the ballot into the scanner softened in the extreme heat of some of the polling places.”

    Towns are required to have emergency plans for such situations.

    “In most cases this means continuing the vote and placing the ballots into the side auxiliary bin of the black box,” Kohler wrote in his statement. “At the end of the election night, those ballots can be run through a functioning machine or hand counted. It is our understanding towns were able to use a back-up machine later in the evening once the temperature cooled.”

    The machines in question were provided by LHS Associates, which describes itself as “the largest provider of election services in the Northeastern U.S.”

    Local registrars say Ryan Butanowicz, an election technician for LHS Associates, has been charged with repairing all of the machines in the state. Butanowicz declined to comment and referred The Day to Jeff Silvestro, who is president of the company. Silvestro did not return a request for comment. The Secretary of the State’s office said the state buys the machines and transfers the title to towns.

    “So many melted down in the state that we opted to wait to call the repairman,” Stover said. “He knows we need it, but we’re saying, ‘We know you’re busy, keep us in mind, we’ll call you in a couple weeks to see how things are doing.’ We happen to have extras because we used to have more polling stations. We’re hoping that even if they don’t get to us, we will be able to have enough of these tabulators for the general election in November.”

    “Of course it won’t be hot in November, so we shouldn’t have any further meltdowns,” Stover added.

    Kohler said he believes the machines can be repaired by replacing the rollers, and that his office is currently looking into how it can help with the repair, and possibly replacement, process. He described the primary day problems as “a unique situation of extreme heat.”

    “Our voting machines have served Connecticut consistently and honorably for 16 years. Although old, our voting machines remain the most reliable and durable in the country,” Kohler said in his statement. “The simple technology that they are based on has been proven by the test of time. We do realize that in the near future, a newer model of the machine may be considered.”

    That said, replacing all of the machines would cost nearly $40 million, Kohler said.

    “We do think that towns will need to consider heat-related issues (due to global warming) in the future and may need to reconsider polling locations that may have air conditioning regardless of the machine,” Kohler added. “All voting machines are now computers and none of them are designed to endure extreme heat.”

    Groton Republican Registrar Kristen Venditti said that Groton was able to avoid such issues as almost all of its polling locations are air-conditioned. One polling location was not air-conditioned so the equipment was moved to an area with air conditioning, Venditti wrote in an email. Signs directed voters to the new location.

    “Town Building Director Bob Charette and the school superintendent's Building Director Sam Kilpatrick were crucial in making our day as comfortable as possible, as well as Town Manager John Burt and Superintendent Susan Austin completely supporting our Election needs,” she added.

    East Lyme did not have any issues because all of their polling locations were air-conditioned. Democratic Registrar Wendi Sims said far from being too warm, poll workers were asking for jackets on Aug. 9. She was relieved East Lyme escaped the fate of other nearby towns.

    Registrars’ offices in Montville, Waterford and New London did not respond to requests for comment.

    s.spinella@theday.com

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