In the early afternoon of Nov. 2, 2010, the unthinkable happened at the secretary of the state's office in Hartford. A trickle — then a flood — of reports started arriving claiming that a number of polling precincts in Connecticut's largest city had run out of ballots and long lines of Bridgeport voters were being turned away while officials scrambled to photocopy paper ballots or print new ballots.
As the ensuing crisis surrounding one of the closest races for governor in Connecticut's history played itself out in the national media for the next few days, this disturbing episode also exposed serious weaknesses in our election laws. If we are to fulfill our promise that what happened in Bridgeport must never happen again, these problems need to be fixed.
Connecticut lawmakers have in front of them a bill I proposed in February that, if enacted, will go a long way toward that goal. Last week, the state Senate rose above partisanship and took the courageous step of unanimously passing this bill, "An Act Concerning the Integrity of Elections." It is in that spirit of cooperation that I now ask my former colleagues in the House to do the same before the end of the legislative session.
When we looked at what happened in Bridgeport, we found that several communities in Connecticut also ran out of ballots that day, but other towns were prepared. They took decisive, appropriate action: photocopying ballots and promptly distributing them to precincts so voting could continue without interruption. The election integrity bill requires all towns to have an emergency plan for Election Day to cover ballot shortages and other contingencies.
One of the more vexing things I found when I took office as secretary of the state was that this office was unaware of how many ballots had been purchased in each of our 169 cities and towns for Election Day. Under our current law, municipalities are not required to inform the secretary of the state of their pre-election preparations. Our election integrity bill gives municipalities a choice: Either tell us how many ballots they have purchased for the upcoming election, or order enough ballots to cover a 100 percent turnout of registered voters on Election Day.
If, after careful review, our office finds that the number of ballots purchased for Election Day is insufficient or does not take into account factors that could augment turnout (such as a visit by the president of the United States), under this legislation, we would have the authority to direct towns to order more ballots.
I am not proposing to dismantle our election system and start from scratch, nor do I favor a wholesale state takeover of elections. Elections have been run at the local level in Connecticut for more than 200 years, and for the most part our registrars of voters have handled the task well.
Post 2010, we and our partners who administer elections at the local level must prepare and communicate better, and we must all be accountable. If the secretary of the state's office is truly the chief elections office and everyone looks to us for answers on Election Day, that has to mean something. We need to know how many ballots each town purchases and the factors on which that number is based. It is far better to head off a crisis than to watch helplessly as it unfolds.
The bottom line: No registered voter who wants to cast a ballot on Election Day should ever be turned away from the polls. This is not a political issue — our elections integrity bill has received broad bipartisan support because everyone understands that reliable and secure elections are the essence of our American democracy. That freedom to choose our government is what our military is fighting for overseas.
Let's not let this historic opportunity to ensure the integrity of our elections slip away.
Denise Merrill is Connecticut's secretary of the state.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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