Voters in a Connecticut polling place Credit: Tim Martin

The Connecticut Secretary of the State’s office intervened as a referee this week in a dispute between local officials in Fairfield over who should have access to the city’s vote tabulator machines.

In an opinion issued Tuesday in response to an “escalation of issues” in the town of Fairfield, Secretary of the State Mark Kohler’s office advised officials there to store the city’s vote tabulator machines behind a “dual lock system,” accessible via two keys. The Democratic and Republican registrars of voters would each be given one of the two unique keys.

“Only those authorized by law shall access the tabulator closet,” the opinion said. “The role of Registrar of Voters requires each registrar to fully cooperate with the other in order to access the tabulator closet to perform their duties.” 

The opinion comes after state election administrators reviewed the voting equipment storage policy recently implemented by First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and found it out of compliance with state law. 

Kupchick, a Republican, took over stewardship of the voting tabulators last month by changing locks in the facility which houses the machines. According to Matthew Waggner, the town’s Democratic registrar of voters, those doors had previously been accessible only to the registrars from both parties. 

Waggner said the abrupt shift in custody encroached on the responsibilities of the elected registrars.

“They can change the policy at any time. It’s to say, ‘Well we control this facility and you don’t.’ And we’re elected officials. You would never say to the Board of Education, ‘We get to decide what the class size is.’ It flies in the face of our duties in this position,” Waggner said. 

So why the change? In a statement, Kupchick said she was responding to various actions taken by Waggner including deleting voting location items from the town’s registrar of voters website and unilaterally accessing the tabulators in advance of last month’s primary elections.

“When I was informed the Democratic Registrar deleted the ROV webpage that was created to inform residents where to vote, I became very concerned about the integrity of Fairfield’s upcoming primary elections,” Kupchick said. “This, coupled with the fact Mr. Waggner worked on the tabulators alone on a weekend, compelled me to take action to ensure the tabulators were secure and that this could not happen again.”

Kupchick described Waggner’s actions as “erratic” and said the town had received complaints about a “hostile work environment” in the registrar’s office. She pointed to August guidance from the Secretary of the State’s office, which okayed leaving a tabulator closet key with an administrative assistant. 

The secretary’s office also informed the town that they had referred the issue to state election regulators as a result of complaints from both parties. The office declined to comment on the issue Friday, but in an August email to the town, attorney Aida Carini reminded officials of state rules regarding access to the machines.

“Both registrars and deputies are to have access to this key at all times and would be accompanied by this assistant at all times in which the closest is accessed,” Carini wrote. “We have advised that no registrar or deputy should be denied access to this area at any time and that only personnel authorized by law shall have access to that area.”

On Friday, Waggner said Kupchick’s office had been attempting for months to exert greater control over the registrar’s affairs. He said the shift in the tabulator storage policy resulted in difficulties during the primary election. 

“On primary day, for about half the day, the people we needed to access the facility weren’t available,” Waggner said. “If we needed to send out additional tabulators we wouldn’t have been able to because we didn’t have access because the key custodian wasn’t in.”

Kupchick, meanwhile, said the issue had been politicized and mischaracterized in an opinion article by the town’s Democratic committee, which was published Thursday on the local Patch site. 

“The Town will continue to report any actions that are in violation of state policies and statutes to ensure Fairfield’s elections are secure, and welcomes the [State Elections Enforcement Commission’s] investigation into these matters,” Kupchick said. 

Steve Elworthy, the town’s Republican registrar of voters, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.