Bipartisan interest is developing for Connecticut election reforms as new session approaches

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — Fresh off an election marked by polling places that opened late and long wait times, both Democrats and Republicans appear willing to consider changes to Connecticut's elections system when lawmakers return to the state Capitol in January.

Members of both parties agree the state needs to do something to professionalize a bifurcated system in which locally elected registrars of voters run the elections and the Secretary of the State's Office interprets state election law.

"For the entirety of time, the election has been on the same day. And yet, inevitably we get to Election Day and it's 'who doesn't have any ballots?' and 'there are ballots from four years ago.' These seems like basic things to me," said Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the incoming House minority leader. "I would hope that we can straighten that stuff out because it's unacceptable in this day and age."

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, has been reaching out to legislative leaders from both parties since the Nov. 4 election about how to move forward and build more accountability into the system.

"If we're going to have a localized election system, how do we make sure the people who are running the local elections at the local level are doing what they're supposed to be doing?" said Av Harris, a spokesman for Merrill. He said an internal committee within Merrill's office has been meeting every two days since the election, coming up with legislative recommendations for how to improve the overall system. The new session of the General Assembly begins on Jan. 7.

Melissa Russell, president of the Registrars of Voters Association of Connecticut, said her organization has been working in recent years to improve technology and education for the 339 registrars and that it is eager to improve operations. Russell noted how ROVAC pushed for legislation last year to allow 25 towns to use electronic poll books, which reduce the time it takes to check in a vote by hand. She said the group also wants electronic vote tally reporting forms, instead of having to handwrite paper forms.

"There's definitely a better mousetrap out there for us," she said.

Russell said she's concerned that problems at the polls in Hartford have tainted people's opinions of all registrars.

"I think there's a little bit of 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater' attitude," she said. "Over 330 registrars across the state did their jobs very professionally and ethically."

A special committee of the Hartford City Council is investigating problems that forced several polling places to open late on Election Day and led to a judge's order to extend voting hours. The mishap prompted President Barack Obama to call WNPR-FM on Election Day, urging people to return to the polls later in the day.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy last week publicly called on the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to "structurally and comprehensively reform" the state's elections system. He called the spate of breakdowns "inexcusable," saying Connecticut residents are being denied the right to vote.

Murphy, a former state senator, has suggested some possible changes. For example, he said the legislature could create a direct line of accountability from the locally elected registrars to the Secretary of the State's Office, so there would be professional oversight and some degree of state control over local elections. He also suggested transferring some of the registrar's duties to the municipal clerk's offices, where there would more likely be full-time, year-round staff.

Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-North Haven, the incoming Senate minority leader, said he's willing to work on a bipartisan solution in the new legislative session.

"I think these conversations have to be had with the registrars of voters and with the moderators and with the Secretary of the State and see what we can do to put a better system together," he said. "I have serious concerns."

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