Merrill’s Election Reform Proposal Goes Too Far

Last Wednesday, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill unveiled a plan to reform the way Connecticut’s elections are administered in each municipality. Under the plan, instead of having two elected registrars of voters, one representing each major political party, each municipality would appoint a single municipal employee to be in charge of election administration. This single employee would need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or four years of experience in election administration and would be appointed by the town’s legislative body.

This proposal was prompted by major issues during the last election in Hartford, where the city’s registrars were completely unprepared to open the polls on time on Election Day. The Hartford City Council conducted an investigation into the matter and is currently in the process of removing all three of its registrars from office. There have also been issues in Fairfield, Naugatuck, and Bridgeport.

This problem is an example of how dereliction of duty by a few people has made things more difficult for the vast majority of people who take their job seriously. The problems in Hartford show that more oversight and accountability is needed to preserve the integrity of our elections, but putting the duties in the hands of one person is not the answer.

Although Connecticut’s election system has been criticized as being too political, having a registrar from each major party ensures that neither party will have an advantage. When more people are involved in the process, there is less of a chance anything secret or nefarious will occur without the public finding out. When more people are involved, there is more transparency.

The main problem with having a single employee who is appointed by a town’s legislative body is the fact that such bodies are typically controlled by a single major party. Therefore, it is likely that the election official will lean towards one party. At the very least, there should be an official role for a representative of each of the major parties.

The best course of action would be to set qualifications for elected registrars of voters and require them to complete a training or certification course, similar to what town clerks undergo in Connecticut. There should be greater oversight that includes a way for the Secretary of the State’s office to intervene if issues are detected. As a last resort, there should be a set process for removing registrars who fail to discharge their duties properly, like what happened in Hartford.

This proposal is set to come before the General Assembly this month and there is a good chance that it will pass in some form. It is likely the municipalities will not actively fight this proposal since it is not an unfunded mandate like most proposals that affect municipalities. In fact, this proposal may even save municipalities money.

The main opponent to this proposal will likely be the Registrar of Voters Association of Connecticut since it will put more than half of them out of a job. The outcome will likely be a compromise proposal similar to what I have outlined above, which very well may be the plan Merrill expected to pass all along.

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