Fairfield wins election turnout laurels despite cloud over local registrars
They may work in separate offices because of their rocky relations, but both of the town's registrars of voters were on hand Friday when Secretary of the State Denise Merrill presented the town with the large "Democracy Cup" for its voter turnout in the 2014 election.
Co-sponsored by the East Haddam Civic Association since 2000, four awards are handed out to state municipalities, categorized by the number of a community's voters. This year, Fairfield won the prize for a community with more than 35,000 registered voters.
The town's voter turnout in November was 56.96 percent, slightly higher than the statewide turnout of 55.57 percent.
"This is really an achievement of your community," Merrill said, and shows the town's residents are active and involved.
"When you think about all the rights we have as citizens, the right to vote is one of the most important," First Selectman Michael Tetreau said. "One of the biggest tragedies in our country is people who don't vote."
Not in Fairfield, though, he said. "Our community stood up and literally led the state, leading by example to make their voices heard."
State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield -- who won his first term in the 28th District in the election -- recalled growing up in a country that was under martial law whose residents didn't have the right to vote. "This is one of the most sacred rights," he said.
Hwang was joined at the ceremony by the rest of the Fairfield delegation to the General Assembly -- state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132; state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-133, and state Rep. Laura Devlin, R-134.
Democrat Registrar Matthew Waggner said the poll workers play an important role. "There's an army behind us," he said. "We couldn't do it without them and without Holly (Lanese), the registrars' secretary.
His Republican counterpart, Roger Autuori, said he "wholeheartedly" agreed with the credit Merrill gave the community's voters, as well as those who work during the elections. He added, however, he may not be in agreement with Merrill on another point -- her recent proposal to replace the two elected registrars in each state municipality with one appointed, civil service registrar.
"We do the work," Autuori said, "but if the politicians we nominate are not connected with the voters, and the people aren't connected with politicians and the League of Women Voters doesn't do their thing, no one comes out to vote."
As for Merrill's proposal, Autuori said, "I don't think it will do what everybody wants it to do."
Merrill made the proposal in light of problems in last year's election in Fairfield and other communities, including Hartford.
Among the problems reported with Fairfield's balloting were that the vote count took much longer than expected, plus there was a vote-scanning machine breakdown and some voters in split voting districts received the wrong ballots.
But long-running problems between the two registrars were cited recently by a town panel as a prime reason for many of the voting issues.
The registrars' rocky relationship erupted in a confrontation in which Autuori was charged with breach of peace as the two were preparing for the 2013 election. Waggner told police Autuori slapped him during that dispute. After Autuori was assigned a separate office as a way to avoid future tensions, he called police to report Waggner was tearing down signs directing voters to that second-floor office.
Autuori, as an alternative to Merrill's proposal, suggested the registrar candidate who receives the most votes run the office, with the other registrar acts as deputy. The registrar running the office, he said, would be directly responsible to the secretary of the state's office.
"This way, there's somebody in charge in each town," he said.
Waggner declined to comment on Merrill's proposal. "I haven't seen it yet," he said, but added he will testify when it comes before the state legislature. "Today is about (the Democracy Cup), we'll do the other thing later."
"It's worthy of consideration," Vahey said of the Merrill proposal.
Kupchick said, "I think it's an interesting proposal" and one that should be reviewed.
Devlin said she's met with both Merrill and the state registrar lobbying group. "They have some areas where they mutually agree," she said, and Merrill's proposal should be "investigated in earnest."