With the Feb. 22 special elections just around the corner, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill outlined her election reform agenda Monday including a measure that would require towns to report to her office on how many ballots were ordered before an election takes place.
Towns that chose not to report the information would be required to purchase enough ballots for 100 percent of their registered voters, she said. The measure was inspired by the Bridgeport ballot debacle last year.
Merrill presented four pieces of legislation with a bipartisan group of lawmakers along with voting rights advocates and Registrars of Voters. The election reform legislation was the end product of a panel discussion Merrill conducted last month spurred by chaos at the voting locations in Bridgeport, where several precincts ran out of ballots before polls closed on Nov. 2.
Merrill said that Bridgeport wasn’t the only town in the state to run out of ballots during last year’s mid-term elections. But while Bridgeport officials were unprepared to deal with the ballot shortages, other towns with emergency plans were better able to cope with the setbacks.
Along with the reporting requirements, the first piece of proposed law Merrill unveiled also requires towns to adopt emergency contingency plans for problems on Election Day. The law would also give the Secretary of the State’s office more authority to intervene in town-run elections if it suspects the town is unprepared.
For instance, the office would gain the authority to direct towns to order more ballots if they believed the town hadn’t ordered enough. The Secretary of the State would also be able to enter a town polling place and remove a moderator with cause, according to a prepared statement.
At a press conference held Monday morning at the state capitol, Merrill described the four bills as “narrow, focused and common-sense,” and said they would go a long way toward preventing situations like what happened in Bridgeport.
Merrill said that people should realize that in Connecticut elections are run by local governments who are usually well prepared. She said that imposing a rigid mandate requiring towns to purchase 100 percent of the ballots would be a substantial waste of money in some cases.
Another proposed bill would amend the state’s constitution to remove restrictions on absentee ballot voting. The measure would give the general assembly the ability to enact a “no-excuse” absentee ballot measure or other early voting systems.
Merrill said that Connecticut wasn’t ahead of the curve on early voting measures. Many states have already enabled early voting and it resulted in double-digit increases in voter turnout in some places, she said.
“It is past time that Connecticut come in to the 21st century and open up our voting system to some form of early voting,” she said. “Our current system is very rigid and we need to catch up with the mobility of our voters. People live and work in different towns.”
If the amendment passed the legislature this session it could be ratified by voters in during the 2012 elections.
The other two bills would change the wording of the state’s election laws, which still include references to lever voting machines, not used since 2006. They would also update the language to reflect the optical scan technology currently used.
Merrill wanted to assure towns that she was working hard to reduce the cost of ballot printing and is looking into technology that would allow for on-site ballot printing.
“This is not about state authority versus the towns, it’s not Republicans versus Democrats, this is about the most important function in our democracy,” she said.
Several lawmakers joined Merrill to unveil the legislation including Republican Rep. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, ranking member on the Government Administration and Elections Committee. Hwang said that as an immigrant, he treasures the privilege of voting.
“It is fundamental to the democratic process that we as a state provide a forum, provide a setting where elections are unquestioned, elections are transparent, honest and reflect the true intent of voters in our community,” he said.
Urania Petit, one of Hartford’s Registrar’s of Voters, joked that in a press release Merrill had called the measures bi-partisan but with her presence they were tri-partisan. Petit said that last year’s elections were similar to a movie: they had suspense, plot twists and drama.
“I happen to love excitement but that was an excitement I don’t want,” she said. “Elections should be orderly and organized.”
Petit said the lines she saw at polls in November were frightening and it was clear to her that registrars needed a plan on Election Day. She lauded Merrill for her efforts and said that registrars around the state would follow her and try to get her ideas adopted.