New panel to review problems reported in local election
Updated 1:23 pm, Monday, December 8, 2014
A bipartisan committee has been appointed by the Board of Selectmen to review the recent election process, which was marred by long delays in reporting results, incorrect ballots and a vote-scanner breakdown.
The review, First Selectman Michael Tetreau said at last week's board meeting, "is not a witch hunt. This is about the process."
The registrars of voters, Republican Roger Autuori and Democrat Matthew Waggner, who by state law oversee elections in town, have been at odds for several years and work in separate offices in old Town Hall. Autuori was charged with breach of peace after the two had a dispute while preparing for the 2013 election, and Waggner told police Autuori had slapped him. Later, Autuori reported Waggner to police for ripping down signs directing the public to Autuori's new second-floor office.
"This is not a witch hunt," agreed Selectman Kevin Kiley. "We're just trying to raise awareness and maintain the integrity" of the election process.
The committee members -- Democrats Catherine Albin and James Quinn, and Republicans Ronald Pine and Bryan Cafferelli -- will compile "a list of issues and concerns raised by citizens and volunteers related to this past election season, including those issues involved with absentee ballot handling," according to the charge approved by the selectmen.
The group will have 60 days to "determine the circumstances and cause of each issue identified" and review with the registrars actions that can be taken to improve future elections.
The selectmen acknowledged, however, that the recommendations will not be binding on the registrars, who do not report to town officials. The election process in the state is overseen by the Secretary of the State's Office.
"Because statewide registrar/election problems have finally reach the tipping point, I believe the Legislature will take care of election issues," Autuori said, "some of which haven't been addressed since the 1960s."
He said more importantly, the town's review committee "must address local administration issues involving the registrars' office, which the registrars must follow."
Waggner said he doesn't think the committee is a bad idea, "though I'm concerned that obtaining expertise in all aspects of election law and procedure will represent a steep learning curve for political lay people."
He said when he first heard about the proposal, he suggested it might be more effective to bring the concerns to the State Election Enforcement Commission and the Secretary of the State to resolve any questions.
"That said, I'd certainly listen to what the group sees as the challenges and opportunities in our elections," Waggner said. "We already adapt to fix problems after each election, and are in frequent contact with other communities about best practices, but some kinds of changes are only possible with a broader consensus among the town bodies. If this group makes that possible, then it could be beneficial."
The selectmen agreed that one of the issues, incorrect ballots, may end up being resolved with the adoption of new local voting districts. In November, some voters reported they were give the wrong ballot for their state General Assembly district. Because the Representative Town Meeting has yet to adopt a new redistricting plan, most of the town's 10 local voting districts are split between two -- and in some cases, three -- state legislative districts.
Another problem was a malfunctioning vote-scanning machine in District 1. "When we have a machine go down, as we did, how do people vote, what's the backup plan?" Tetreau said. "It seemed to be a little bit more of a crisis situation at the time. I think these are things that can be easily reviewed."
In contrast to previous elections, this year the absentee ballots were delivered to the polling places, where they were counted with the ballots cast that day. Previously, the absentee ballots were counted in one central location, but both registrars must agree in order for that to occur.
Waggner contends it is more efficient and saves time and money to have each district scan absentee ballots from voters who live in those districts, while Autuori says it added to delays in getting the vote results on election night.
"I'm always interested in assessing how we're doing," Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey said. "There's always room for improvement in anything we do."
The selectmen agreed to a 60-day deadline for the elections panel, but agreed the group could ask for more time if members feel it is needed.