The election was over. The losers had conceded, the victors were celebrating, and New Haven had still not reported its votes.
Mishaps and missteps are something of an Election Day tradition in Connecticut, and this year did not disappoint. With just two employees tasked with registering swarms of voters in City Hall on Election Day, New Haven performed a mass swearing-in minutes before polls closed, prompting a Republican attorney to seek an injunction to set aside ballots that may have been cast improperly.
New Haven was not alone in failing to report its votes the day they were cast. Candidates were stranded at watch parties into the early hours of Wednesday, the crowds dwindling as television chyrons flashed election results from less dysfunctional states.
Was it, as elections officials have said, because of the day’s downpour, which similarly affected Rhode Island but caused few of the same problems? Was it because two in three registered voters cast ballots, flooding polling places with the highest turnout in recent memory for a midterm election? Was it because Connecticut does not allow early voting, which cools some of the Election Day frenzy in other states? Or was it because registrars, the elected and partisan figures who tally votes and report them to a state clearinghouse, were severely unprepared?
Previous elections have brought the state's vote-tallying apparatus to the brink of meltdown — recall when Bridgeport purchased less than a third of the ballots it needed in 2010, forcing a judge to extend voting hours; or the 2014 fiasco in Hartford, termed “a slowly unfolding calamity” by the state elections enforcement commission, when 14 polling places opened late, voters were turned away and registrars blew off mandatory meetings with the Secretary of the State.
On Tuesday night, attorneys for both Republicans and Democrats were mulling a lawsuit: Republicans to segregate ballots cast by same-day registrants, Democrats to extend voting hours. Only the Republicans filed suit, and Herb Shepardson, the attorney for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski, said he was not pursuing the case given the candidate’s loss.
In an interview, Dan Barrett, the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director, said he is looking at “all avenues of advocacy” to ensure Tuesday night’s chaos does not repeat itself in New Haven in the next election — as it has in the three previous ones.
“It’s just courting disaster,” he said. “Repeated problems call into question the city’s ability to conduct an election at all.”
Denise Merrill, the secretary of the state and Connecticut’s top elections official, acknowledged frustration with the plodding pace of vote-counting in Connecticut, and said she shared it. Still, with registrars on municipal payrolls, Merrill said she could not compel towns and cities to make a fix she believes could have averted New Haven’s botching of Election Day — hiring and training more people.
“All of this could probably be solved with additional funding, but no one wants to pay for it,” she said.
Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said his group “would welcome a meeting with the Secretary of the State to find a solution that works for the state, and is workable and doable for cities and towns, to improve the election process.”
Greenwich — smaller than New Haven, but by no means a small town — ran a smooth operation Tuesday, offering live updates on the town’s website. Fred Decaro, Greenwich’s Republican registrar, credited the town for supplying his office with the manpower and the funding to do its job.
“We had six people trained on the computers to handle EDR,” he said, referring to Election Day Registration. “Compare that to New Haven. They had two.”
In Merrill’s view, New Haven “probably should have had 10.”
“They understaffed the process,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s any excuse, because it’s happened there three times in a row.”
No one answered the phone Thursday at the registrar’s office in New Haven. The two registrars, Democrat Shannel Evans and Republican Delores Knight, each make $66,000 a year, according to a spokesman for Mayor Toni Harp. Their deputies make $46,750 a year.
As elected figures, the registrars are “autonomous,” said Laurence Grotheer. “They are elected officials in their own right, independent of municipal government (except funding for staff), and accountable to voters and the office of the Secretary of the State.”