Errors and omissions by Hartford election officials, dysfunctional relationships, a lack of leadership, and the absence of a chain of command contributed to the city of Hartford’s Election Day problems, according to a new report.
The Committee of Inquiry report released Friday details what happened on Election Day when at least six polling places opened up at 6 a.m. without any voter lists. In some cases, voters were reportedly turned away from the polls while others signed affidavits to verify their identities in order to vote without being checked off the voter list.
The committee interviewed a dozen witnesses, including Olga Vazquez, Shelia Hall, and Urania Petit, the three Registrar of Voters in Hartford, and poured over more than 10,000 documents to complete the report.
It concluded all three Hartford Registrars were collectively responsible for all aspects of the administration of the election, but all three testified that Vazquez alone was tasked with, and took responsibility for, preparing the final registry list. Those lists didn’t make it to the polling places before 6 a.m.
Vazquez testified on Dec. 23 that the moderators were not provided with the materials by the legally mandated time.
“Yet when asked whether the law required her, as the registrar of voters, to ensure that the materials were in fact provided on time, Vazquez declined to answer, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights through counsel,” according to the report.
So what happened?
According to the report, the Hartford Registrars did not encounter any computer problems that prevented them from importing the list of registered voters from the state database, generating the final voter list, or sending it to be printed.
The delay seemed to happen the Monday before the election when they were unable to cross off the names of voters who had sent in absentee ballots from the voter lists that were supposed to be at the 24 polling places at 8 p.m. the night before the election.
In a Nov. 3 email, Eric Lusa, assistant Hartford Town Clerk, advised Vazquez that the Town and City Clerk’s Office had “over 1,200 ballots” and asked whether Vazquez could indicate when the cross-off process would start.
“Lusa testified that he sent this e-mail due to a growing concern in the Clerk’s Office that the cross-off process had not yet begun and there did not seem to be enough time to complete it,” the report states. “Vazquez did not respond to Lusa’s e-mail.”
After the cross-off process commenced that Monday, Lusa observed that the progress was “not sufficient” and he voiced his concern to Vazquez and Petit. Six additional staff members were assigned to help, but at 5 p.m. the day before the election they had only completed about a third.
At around 7 p.m. the night before the election, Lusa testified that “at that point . . . a decision had to [be] made if . . .we were going to stay late into the evening to finish the cross off or we were going to circle back and come in at very, very early in the morning to finish the cross off.”
The two discussed the issue, but now can’t agree on who made the decision to stop at 7:30 p.m. and return at 4 a.m. on Election Day to complete the process.
“Lusa testified that the decision to suspend the cross-off until Election Day morning was entirely made by Vazquez. In contrast, Vazquez testified that Lusa “made her” stop at 7:30 p.m., and that this made her angry,” according to the report.
The plan was to have the head moderators and spare moderator leave City Hall no later than 5:30 a.m. on the day of the election to deliver the final registry books and bags to the polling places by 6 a.m. Each individual was responsible for three or four polling places.
Vazquez herself was responsible for delivering three of the books to three polling places in the south end.
“Although Vazquez had agreed the previous evening to deliver the registry books to these locations, she testified that at some time between 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. she observed the bags containing the books sitting in the office and thought ‘What the F are these things doing here?’ Upon realizing that she was responsible for delivering the bags, Vazquez grabbed them and left to deliver them,” the report states.
Vazquez testified that by the time she arrived at the South End Senior Center sometime after 6 a.m., “she encountered reporters who were already confronting her about the polls opening late.”
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra said the report shows that “the Registrar[s] of Voters were completely unprepared for Election Day, that no effort was made to correct issues they were aware of ahead of time, and that their lack of ability to communicate resulted in failure to perform their primary responsibilities and duties.”
Segarra and the city council will accept the report and make recommendations, possibly to change how the registrar’s office is managed. Currently, all three registrars are elected and there’s no provision in state that allows their removal, but there is a provision in the charter that allows for the removal of an elected official for neglect or “dereliction of official duty.”
“This is not the first time this office has demonstrated incompetence and dysfunction. It is unacceptable that our citizens’ right to vote was compromised in any way,” Segarra said.
In terms of what happens next, “I think there will be universal support for fixing the problem, fixing the system,” Hartford Council President Shawn Wooden said. “Maybe that relates to individuals, maybe that relates to the structure of the Office of the Registrar of Voters.”
In addition, months after the election, there is still no accurate count of the Hartford vote.
“There is no agreement between the Hartford Registrars, the Head Moderator, and the Town and City Clerk as to which election results, if any, are accurate,” the report concluded. “. . . In other words, the officials responsible for administering the election process in Hartford do not agree that they have provided correct election results to the Secretary of the State, and, therefore, the final vote tally of the November 4, 2014 General Election remains unclear.”
The matter has also been referred to the State Elections Enforcement Commission by the Secretary of the State’s office for investigation.