By: Jake Albert
Elections are political. In every election voters choose among candidates who are associated with one party or another, with two major parties dominating the landscape in this country. Choosing a member from one of these parties involves countless hours of campaigning and millions of dollars nationwide, all to advance one’s own, or often one’s party’s, agenda while in office. This can often lead to gridlock when partisan political agendas collide. But what happens when the very people who run the actual elections are also part of this partisan political system?
Connecticut has a system in which each of the state’s 169 municipalities has two elected registrars, one Democrat and one Republican, run the elections in the municipalities. This makes Connecticut unique as no other state leaves election administration to two partisan registrars. The registrars are responsible for preparing the official voting list, administering all elections, and ensuring the accuracy and efficiency of the elections.
Here’s how the system works. There are two main rules that cause the debate at issue: first, both one Democrat registrar and one Republican registrar are elected in each municipality; second, the top two candidates are elected regardless of party affiliation. Thus, if a third party candidate finishes in the top two in voting, there can be three registrars, as there must still be a Democrat and a Republican.
This system has been under fire in recent years due to issues at polling places calling into question an electoral, partisan, two-person system as opposed to a single person, appointed professional position as in other states. In 2015, Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill proposed a change to a single-person system, saying, “enough is enough” with the partisan system and strongly advocating for depoliticizing the process. However, there was much backlash, with the current registrars (obviously) opposing the plan, and some towns taking issue with the single-person requirement. A new plan was proposed making that requirement optional, but this was also shut down.
While the system is under fire due to the problems at polling places, there is a unique problem in Hartford, Connecticut, the state’s capitol. In 2008, a Working Families Party candidate placed second in the election for registrars, which meant that the city would then have three registrars in accordance with the current system. Hartford has operated with such a three-registrar system ever since, leading critics to argue that not only has it not improved elections, but the third registrar, along with their staff, has “[cost] the strapped city at least $2 million in the past eight years.”
In sum, even though (1) partisan registrars running elections sounds fishy; (2) the costs of having two (or three) registrars when other states use only one puts into question whether the system is worth it; and (3) there has been large political backlash against the system (including from the Secretary of the State), nothing has changed. After eight years of Hartford using three registrars and multiple election scandals, no progress has been made to update the system.
With the current registrars lobbying for the system, along with the fact that voters are likely to be generally uninformed of the issue, there will probably not be any major reform coming anytime soon.