(Updated 4:46 p.m.) Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is lauding a judge’s order permitting a minor political party’s candidates to appear on the ballot in Westport and East Hampton’s municipal election despite their failure to comply with state election law.
In Westport, Town Clerk Patricia Strauss was prohibited from allowing three candidates from the “Save Westport Now” party who were running for the Planning and Zoning Commission to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot because they had failed to sign their endorsement paperwork, according to court documents. But Stamford Superior Court Judge Kenneth Povodator ordered Strauss to include David Lessing, Andra Vebell, and Allan Hodge on the ballot, despite the requirement passed into law in 2011.
That decision and two others decided Monday were praised by Merrill and other minor party candidates in similar situations.
“It is always in the best interest of voters to have choices on the ballot, and I am relieved the judge resolved this issue,” Merrill said of Povodator’s decision. “It was never the intention of my office or any town clerk to keep candidates from this minor party or others off the ballot this November.”
The Chatham Party, a minority party in East Hampton, filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of its sixteen candidates.
On Monday afternoon, Judge Edward Domnarski ordered the candidates be placed on the ballot despite their failure to comply with the law.
Merrill praised that decision too.
“It is always in the best interest of voters to have choices on the ballot, and I am relieved the judge resolved this issue,” she said Monday.
Other minor parties in Middletown and a handful of towns are waging similar court challenges because they were largely unaware of a 2011 state law that required minor party candidates to sign their endorsement paperwork. The law was established to make sure a candidate is not endorsed without their knowledge
Av Harris, the director of communications for Merrill’s office, said there were minor parties filing paperwork this year that did not meet all the requirements, particularly regarding nominees’ signatures, because they were apparently unaware of them. He added that the majority of the minor parties and officials in Connecticut’s 169 municipalities appear to have done everything correctly.
“As Judge Povodator aptly put it . . . the legal requirement for a candidate to sign the endorsement paperwork for a minor party is not a trivial or technical matter,” Merrill said in her statement. “This law exists so that a candidate for office cannot be nominated by a political party without their knowledge or consent.”
But some municipalities are still grappling with it.
“There have been many calls in the past couple of weeks for my office or town clerks to waive this legal requirement if the minor party made its best effort to turn in their endorsement paperwork correctly,” Merrill said.
A town clerk has no authority to ignore the law and permit a candidate to appear on a ballot if they or their party have not met legal requirements, nor does the Secretary of the State have legal authority to intervene in a municipal election and change the outcome for a minor party or overrule the decision of a town clerk, Merrill explained.
“Our role in this case and other towns facing the same issue this year is simply to remind local officials of what state election laws require for minor party endorsements for municipal office,” Merrill said. “Courts are the appropriate venue to resolve such cases, and I am glad the ballot in Westport is now set in a way that benefits the minor party candidates, the town clerk, and most importantly, the voters.”
Representatives of the Realistic Balance Party, a minority party established in Middletown in 2009, filed a similar lawsuit in September against Town Clerk Linda Bettencourt. The party attempted to endorse candidates for the Planning and Zoning Commission this year without acquiring their signatures, which party secretary John Kilian said they were allowed to do during the 2011 municipal elections despite the law already being passed. Kilian stated he was unaware of the legal change regarding the signatures.
“It’s a reasonable law, but throw us a bone,” Kilian said, adding that he did not think the alleged discrepancy was deliberate on Bettencourt’s part. “If you are going to interpret the law differently between elections, let us know.”
Bettencourt declined comment Monday because of the pending litigation. She is the only named defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed by Kilian, who is not an attorney.
One of the candidates, Stephen Devoto, already is endorsed by local Democrats but was cross-endorsed by the Realistic Balance Party. The other candidate, Steve Smith, is a Democrat endorsed only by Realistic Balance Party.
Kilian, who signed his paperwork and will appear on the ballot as a mayoral candidate, said the Realistic Balance Party was not influenced by the Westport lawsuit into taking action. He added that his party hopes to get their nominees back on the ballot.
Fred Carroll, chairman of the Realistic Balance Party in Middletown, will also appear on the ballot as a candidate for city council since both he and Kilian signed the paperwork as officers of the party.
Harris said Merrill’s office is monitoring similar cases in Bethel, Easton, and Windham.
Bridgeport Judge Barbara Bellis ruled Monday against the Easton Coalition candidates and denied them ballot access because they lacked an accompanying letter of endorsement from the party.
“The Easton Coalition failed to file a legally required document with my office by the September 4th deadline, so by law, I had to reject their petitions,” Merrill said. “My office is given the legal authority to approve general election nominating petitions for those who want to run independently or under a party designation.’
He said four candidates from the Easton Coalition have filed for an injunction against not only the Easton Town Clerk, but also the Town of Easton and the State of Connecticut after Merrill’s office declined to recognize the party’s endorsement statement. The party failed to provide a separate letter of endorsement to go with a nominating petition, according to information Harris provided.
“Each case is slightly different,” Harris said.