Registrars of voters ready to oppose secretary of the state's plan

A proposal announced Wednesday by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to overhaul local election structure by replacing elected registrars of voters with a single appointed municipal election official per town brought swift and negative reaction from both veteran and newcomer registrars, who vow to fight any proposed bills to enact the change.

Merrill said her proposal would "improve" local election administration by replacing the current system in which Democratic and Republican nominees are "handpicked" by political town committees to run unopposed in general elections.

Under Merrill's plan, a municipal employee would be appointed locally to administer elections as "a nonpartisan professional." Merrill submitted concept legislation to enact the change to the General Assembly's Government Administration and Elections Committee, which is expected to hold a public hearing in Hartford on March 9.

The plan would require the municipal election official to meet minimum qualifications of at least a bachelor's degree or four years of experience in election administration and to be certified by the state with yearly training.

The proposal came in response to two recent election controversies in Bridgeport in 2010 and Hartford last November - not enough ballots in Bridgeport and lack of voter lists at the polls in Hartford - which brought national and embarrassing news coverage.

While Merrill on Wednesday cited these incidents as reasons for the overhaul, local registrars said problems of that nature are rare and can be easily corrected within the current system. They said the current system with at least two registrars of differing parties per municipality is the only way to ensure nonpartisan and fair elections and voter registrations.

Norwich Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak said Merrill's proposal would increase the risk of election fraud and would be more partisan rather than nonpartisan. Slopak called the proposal "a gut reaction" by Merrill to a few bad incidents.

"No matter which party is in power, they're going to appoint someone from their own party," Slopak said, "so the other party and the unaffiliated voters won't be represented."

Norwich Democratic Registrar Dianne Daniels agreed with those assessments and added that the move would not save money for municipalities - it likely would cost more money. Slopak said if the appointed officials are full-time municipal employees, they also would receive benefits.

"Who's going to pay for all this?" Slopak said.

Currently, the two Norwich registrars are part-time officials, each earning $26,000 per year, with the office open 26 hours a week, longer as an election approaches. The two have no paid staff, instead relying on volunteer deputies who receive stipends during election time, and the registrars oversee the hiring of election moderators and poll workers. Those workers are paid varying amounts for their one day of work.

If larger towns and big cities reduce to one election official, that person would need paid staff to help run the office and keep election records up to date, Daniels said.

"She's politicizing this," said New London Republican Registrar Mike Doyle. "I'm sorry, we don't have an issue like that here … I've never seen someone try to change things so drastically over one issue."

Doyle has served as city registrar since June, but has been active in Connecticut politics for decades. He serves on the legislative committee of the Registrars' Association of Connecticut, and Doyle said he doesn't believe there will be legislative support for Merrill's proposal.

In her announcement, however, Merrill cited frequent, less publicized reports of dysfunctional relationships locally between registrars of different political parties, including cases of verbal and physical altercations and one registrar locking the other one out of the office.

Doyle said the elected registrars in most cities and towns work well together and are capable of responding to local election issues. For example, during the last election in New London, long lines were forming. Doyle said registrars already have addressed the problem, bringing in volunteer students from New London High School to assist voters in line, to make sure they knew the process and would have their identifications ready.

"We've addressed that," Doyle said. "We are making changes to make sure we won't have lines at the polling places."

Doyle and Democratic New London Registrar Bill Giesing are part-time, earning $26,000 per year with the office open 20 hours per week.

Salem Democratic Registrar Sue Spang said she's not in favor of Merrill's plan either. Spang understands Merrill's effort is to "take the politics out" of the office, but she doesn't think that will happen under the proposal.

"Having someone appointed does not take the politics out of it," said Spang, who has served 11 years in the office.

If the appointment of a registrar is at the whim of the governing authority - and its majority party - the registrar could be replaced if a different party gains the majority, Spang said. She said the job requires a lot of knowledge to keep up with changing laws and technology, and such turnover wouldn't be good for elections, both in large cities and small towns.

Melissa Russell, president of the Registrars' Association of Connecticut, also is a small-town registrar from Bethlehem. Russell said she already has been talking to legislators about other issues to improve local elections without the drastic change proposed by Merrill. She said members of the association plan to speak at the March 9 hearing, arguing instead for a statewide certification system for elected registrars and for better education and technology to improve reporting of election results to the state office.

"I don't know of a single politically appointed nonpartisan person," Russell said.

Staff Writer Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

k.drelich@theday.com

Twitter: @KimberlyDrelich

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