(Updated 11:33 a.m.)Secretary of the State Denise Merrill may be the state’s chief elections official, but her office has limited authority when it comes to municipal primaries.
“In a municipal election we have no authority or legal obligation [over primary petitions] of any kind,” Merrill said Tuesday in an interview in her Capitol office.
But the campaign manager for one of the mayoral candidates in Bridgeport doesn’t believe that’s the case.
Jason Bartlett, a former state representative who is running Mary-Jane Foster’s Democratic challenge of Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, said he personally doesn’t understand the position Merrill’s office took when it refused to give advice to the local Democratic Registrar of Voters Santa Ayala.
“They were all trying to draw us in as some sort of ultimate authority, unfortunately we’re not. We’re just not,” Merrill said. “We didn’t feel comfortable with asserting authority we didn’t have.”
Merrill said Ayala did contact her office for advice before deciding to decertify Foster‘s slate of candidates. Ayala struggled with deciding whether to allow Foster’s slate, including its four Board of Education candidates to be included on the ballot. Ayala ultimately decided against allowing Foster and her slate onto the ballot, but a Superior Court judge overturned that decision last week.
The election lawsuit filed by Foster in Bridgeport centered around the slate of candidates for the Board of Education.
In 2010, a new law was passed that allowed an elected school board to dissolve itself, Merrill said. At that point the Department of Education can step in and put in a new board, which is what happened in Bridgeport. The lawsuit focused specifically on the education issue is still pending.
“This is frankly, speaking as an ex-legislator, what happens when you have laws that are passed that never even go to the GAE [General Administration and Elections] committee,” Merrill said.
She said this was a strange case where education law superseded election law and her office had no authority to opine on an education statute.
The lawsuit filed by Foster seems to show Ayala struggled with figuring out whether any of the candidates could even run for the Board of Education, since it had been dissolved and taken over by the state. The law seems to be silent on what happens after a board of education is dissolved.
“She wanted us to decide what should happen to the petitions,” Merrill said. “We have absolutely no authority in a municipal election it is up to her to decide. We never even see the petitions.”
In a statewide election Merrill said her office actually receives the petitions and her office has to certify them.
Merrill said the legislature passed a bill this year that will allow her office to insert itself in statewide and municipal elections in certain circumstances, but it does not give her the power to insert herself in any issues involving primary petitions.
She said people seem to want there to be some sort of statewide authority, but when push comes to shove local Registrars fight giving up their control. She said they fought her this year on the ballot integrity measure inspired by the gubernatorial ballot debacle in Bridgeport, but when the locally elected Registrars are faced with hard decisions the Secretary of the State’s office is the first place they call.
If it hadn’t been for the ballot debacle in Bridgeport in 2010, Merrill said she doesn’t believe she would have been able to get the ballot integrity legislation passed.
The legislation gives Merrill’s office more power in that it allows her to certify the number of ballots Registrars order for each polling place in any election. It also allows her to access polling places, unless she’s on the ballot, and allows her to disqualify moderators under certain circumstances. That power includes municipal elections.
Not convinced it will be smooth sailing Tuesday, Sept. 27, the court ordered primary date, Bartlett took the unusual step of asking Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo to provide voter protection.
“Our understanding is that the State party can send attorneys and observers trained in election law to come to Bridgeport on the day of the primary and serve our City’s voters to insure a fair and just election,” Bartlett wrote in a letter to DiNardo.
DiNardo was unavailable for comment Tuesday, so it’s unclear if the party will oblige.
“I thought Connecticut was moving toward more democracy and making things easier. Access to the ballot should be easier, not more difficult,” Bartlett said. “I’m really pleased the judge agreed with all of our arguments.”
When Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis issued her decision last week she decided to give Bridgeport its own primary date of Sept. 27.
Bartlett said that was the only fair remedy because the absentee ballots had already been printed without Foster’s name on them. Judge Bellis issued a clarified decision Tuesday calling for the return of previously issued absentee ballots, according to Only In Bridgeport.
Bridgeport’s last mayoral primary between Mayor Bill Finch and former state Rep. Chris Caruso also ended up in court after primary day irregularities were called into question by Caruso’s campaign.