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Getting Vote Right Takes Time, Money

By Susan Bysiewicz

November 20, 2010

Democracy is a big, loud, messy process.

In Connecticut, our Constitution and subsequent laws dictate that elections are the province of local government. So, the legal responsibility for carrying out elections falls squarely on the shoulders of our 169 municipalities. From large cities to tiny towns, all bear the same legal responsibility to plan for and execute our elections.

The secretary of the state's office provides legal advice and guidance to cities and towns on how to interpret federal and state election mandates, and how those laws should be implemented. Ultimately, however, it is the democratically-elected, local registrars of voters who are empowered to make decisions about how elections are run. The secretary of the state has no legal authority to compel each town to follow the law, and the power to enforce election laws resides with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Following a normal election, it takes a few days to get an official tally of the results at the secretary of the state's office. Towns are required to send our office their report of the election results called a head moderator's return the day after the general election. For 14 days following Election Day, towns may submit amended returns allowing for small fluctuations in the numbers as results are checked following the initial tally.

The winners and losers usually concede defeat or declare victory based on numbers that the political parties or their own workers are reporting to them from the towns election night not from election results reported to the campaigns by the secretary of the state. The majority of races are called before the official results are tallied; these claims are made based on unofficial numbers.

Generally, the margins between the winning and losing candidates are wide enough that the victors can be determined without needing to wait until the final results are in.

This year, the election produced two abnormal things: 1) The city of Bridgeport did not order enough ballots for the number of people who were voting on Election Day, resulting in an extraordinary court order keeping the polls open an extra two hours, and 2) We had an extremely close race for governor. Only in 1954, when Abe Ribicoff defeated John Cabot Lodge by 3,115 votes, has our state seen a closer result for governor.

I was criticized for saying publicly on Nov. 3 (the day after the election) that it appeared Democrat Dan Malloy was the winner of the governor's race by a few thousand votes, based on unofficial numbers our office had received from large cities such as New Haven and Bridgeport. Many of these critics had bombarded my office with phone calls and e-mails, as early as 3:45 a.m. that same day, demanding to instantly know the results of the governor's race. I suppose if I had said nothing until we had received all of the official returns from every city and town in the state, I would be accused of withholding important information from the public about who won the governor's race. Ultimately, what the unofficial numbers told us was true: Dan Malloy defeated Tom Foley in the race for governor by a few thousand votes, and no statewide recount would take place.

In our instantaneous media culture, we expect to know everything right away. The truth is, the way our democracy works does not always fit into that 24-hour news cycle. Human beings are involved in every step of the election process, and the work of our democracy takes time.

We must make sure that what happened in Bridgeport never happens again. I urge the General Assembly to pass and Governor-elect Malloy to sign a measure ensuring that a sufficient number of ballots are provided for every registered voter in Connecticut. Yes, democracy takes time and costs money.

Susan Bysiewicz is secretary of the state.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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