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electionlineWeekly — April 2, 2015

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I. In Focus This Week

A compromise in Connecticut
Registrars and Merrill reach consensus on reform legislation

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New England is known for its many traditions and in Connecticut, one of those traditions has been having two elected registrars — one representing each of the major parties — run the elections for the cities and towns in The Nutmeg State.

Following a series of well-publicized problems during the November 2014 election including late-opening polling places and voters wishing to utilize the state’s same-day registration process waiting in hours-long lines, Secretary of State Denise Merrill proposed sweeping election reform legislation that would have eliminated the election of registrars and instead made them a hired position.

While there was support for the legislation, there was also swift backlash in other corners with registrars, some local office holders and residents opposing the shift.

Following several weeks of negotiations between Merrill and the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut (ROVAC), a compromise was reached, the legislation was amended and gained it’s first round of approval in the Connecticut Legislature after being approved 13-2 by the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

“After a lot of hard work, I am very grateful that we have bipartisan support for a very strong proposal that will greatly improve elections for Connecticut voters,” Merrill said in a statement. 

Melissa J. Russell is the Republican registrar in the town of Bethlehem and also current president of ROVAC.

“A lot of credit for reaching this compromise goes to the GAE (Government Administration and Elections) Committee of the legislature,” Russell said. “The two chairs of the committee made sure that ROVAC had a seat at the table in all discussions, and really took the time to listen to registrars' concerns about administering elections. In the end, all of us want the same thing: smooth and professionally run elections.”

Under Senate Bill 1051, registrars would remain elected, but would be required to go through a training and certification process and mechanisms were put in place to remove deficient registrars permanently or temporarily suspend them.

While generally positive about the compromise legislation, Russell said ROVAC does have some concerns including about Section 5 of the bill that deals with a recall provision for registrars of voters.

“As the language is currently written, anyone can make a complaint to the State's Attorney about a registrar and the State's Attorney starts an investigation that could lead to recall,” Russell said. “What ROVAC would like to see is a clearer path spelled out to this investigation -- perhaps having a recommendation made by SEEC (State Elections Enforcement Commission) to go down the recall path.”

Russell said there are also concerns within the ROVAC membership about Section 6 of the legislation that would allow the secretary of state to suspend a registrar during the investigation process.

“Again, we would like to see more specificity and more due process for registrars,” Russell said. “We have been assured by legislators in the GAE committee that they will take a look at these items and work on adjusting the language to address our concerns.”

ROVAC and the secretary of state’s office have already been working together for more than a year on the current certification process.

“I have said from the beginning that we need more professionalism and accountability in how we run elections in Connecticut, and this bill accomplishes that,” Merrill said.

In addition the bill also addresses several big issues that Russell said have long been on ROVAC’s wish list including reforming end of election night reporting and the ability to use technology to conduct post-election audits.

“This bill…paves the way for some long-needed modernization and technological improvements to the voting process in Connecticut, something we have sought for years,” Merrill said.

While a compromise has been met, the legislation is still a work in progress so what impacts, fiscally and on workload it may have on local registrars remains to be seen.

“I do not see any major changes in workload in the Farmington office at all,” said Barbara Brenneman, Farmington registrar of voters. “Farmington will continue to have 2 Registrars, 1 Democrat and 1 Republican, who oversee all activity together and jointly train our poll workers for every voting event.”

Brenneman added that while she didn’t anticipate any major workload changes to her office and couldn’t anticipate what the fiscal impact would be, that overall she was pleased with the legislation.

“I am really looking forward to improved technology that will enhance the ‘end of night reporting’ methods that often keep us Registrars in town hall till the wee hours of the morning,” Brenneman said.

While there may be some added costs, both financially and time-wise with the certification process, Russell anticipates a positive impact on her office by lightening the election night and post- election audit workload.

“Overall, I would just like to add that I think the amended language of SB1051 creates an exciting opportunity for Connecticut's registrars of voters to truly modernize and streamline our election administration processes, and I believe that this is a real leap forward for our state, with lasting benefits for our voters,” Russell said.

So, while New Englanders may love their traditions, they aren’t opposed to a little change now and then too.