U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, four years from his reelection, has issued a blistering attack on the state’s system for voting, highlighting breakdowns across the state, including the 2010 ballot shortage in Bridgeport, “denying Connecticut citizens the right to vote, and provide a rationalization for those that decided to stay home in the first place.”
Murphy, Connecticut’s junior senator, released the following statement on Thursday, urging the governor and state legislature to enact election reform when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Well under half of Connecticut’s eligible voters turned out to vote in this year’s critical statewide election. It’s hard to understand how so many people would forfeit their constitutional responsibility to vote, but it’s even harder to understand why Connecticut still allows a system of local election administration that, year after year, makes the problem of low turnout worse rather than better. In 2010, there weren’t enough ballots ordered in Bridgeport. In 2012, West Hartford didn’t put enough people at the polls, resulting in lines to vote that lasted hours. And two weeks ago, we saw the most absurd failure yet, as Hartford wasn’t even able to open several polling sites, including the Governor’s, on Election Day morning. These failures were as simple as they were inexcusable. And the result is that citizens in the Constitution State were denied their constitutional right to vote.
Enough is enough. These kind of inexcusable breakdowns are denying Connecticut citizens the right to vote, and provide a rationalization for those that decided to stay home in the first place. If a democracy can’t even organize an election properly, how can people have faith that it can help organize a society?
We are now well past the point of incremental reform. We can’t fix this problem based upon the foundation that exists today. Connecticut is unique in having autonomous local registrars of voters running elections, with little to no oversight from, or accountability to, a professional election administration office. This balkanized system of election administration has resulted in major problem after major problem, but also stunted development of technology that can make voting easier for Connecticut residents.
I believe the Governor and the state legislature must undertake an effort in the 2015 session to structurally and comprehensively reform our system of elections. What we need is simple–professionalization and accountability. Many local registrars have run smooth, efficient elections for decades. But the exceptions to that rule are getting too numerous to tolerate, and it’s time to consider a new path for how we run the ballot. It could be as simple as creating a direct line of accountability from registrars to the Secretary of State’s office, so that the professional Elections Division has oversight and some degree of control over local elections. Or reform could involve transferring some of the registrar’s duties to the municipal clerk’s offices, where it’s more likely to find full time, year ’round staff. Whichever reform the legislature chooses, it can’t just be window dressing, like more training or a removal process for negligent registrars. Let’s use this moment to solve this issue once and for all, and make sure no citizen ever again shows up to a polling place that doesn’t have ballots or requires you to wait for hours to cast your vote.
And to do the job right, the legislature should look at other ways to make voting easier. Unfortunately, with the failure of the constitutional amendment, voting by mail is not in our future. But there aren’t legal impediments to other major reforms, like allowing Connecticut voters to vote at any polling place in the state (near their home, their workplace, or their school) once we have a statewide electronic voter list operational. Connecticut is the land of steady habits, but the tradition of making it harder than necessary to cast a vote is one that deserves no continued loyalty.
I can’t defend the choice that thousands of Connecticut voters made earlier this month when they sat out the election and let the neighbors choose their government for them. But I also cannot defend a system that sends a message to voters that we take elections so casually that we are ready to allow these mistakes to continue absent comprehensive reform. Lyndon Johnson once said, “a man without a vote is a man without protection.” If someone decides to go defenseless because of their own apathy, then that’s their choosing. But shame on us if we don’t understand that the recent trend of election breakdowns–and the contribution it has to low voter participation–won’t abate unless the system itself is changed.