Preparing For A Presidential Election: A Conversation With The Secretary Of The State

Jun 30, 2016

Conn. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill speaks with WSHU Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma this week about preparations for November's presidential election.
Credit Office of the Connecticut Secretary of the State

Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill is predicting a higher than normal voter turnout in the state this November because of increased public interest in the presidential election. She says her office is making plans to ensure that problems that happened in past elections, such as not having enough ballots at some polling places, won’t happen this year.

Speaking with WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma, Merrill says there was an unusual increase in the number of new voter registrations in Connecticut before the presidential primaries in April.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Merrill: We had more than 100,000 new voters register between January and April. That’s a very large number. And a large number of them were under 30. More than 50 percent. So that’s very notable.

Did they vote? Did they come out to vote?

They did come out to vote. We had a higher primary turnout than anything I can remember. It was around 60 percent or a bigger number. It was definitely a record event.

Now, how does that inform you looking at November’s election? Are you expecting a high turnout? And if so, we’ve had problems with elections in Connecticut in the past, with local election officials not being fully prepared. What do we have in place, and what are you expecting for November?

Well, in some ways I’m not sure what to expect. I think this election is breaking all the rules, in many ways. But I do think there is going to be a record turnout, one way or the other. And a lot has changed in Connecticut, and some things have stayed the same. The things that have changed are the things I have put in place since those problems you referred to in both of the last gubernatorial elections, including before my time slightly, the problem in Bridgeport where they ran out of all the ballots during the first Obama election. And then subsequent to that, we had a problem in my own polling place where lists didn’t arrive in time, which does sometimes happen. But these lists didn’t arrive for a long time, and voters were turned away in both cases. And that’s a big deal.

Since that time, some things have changed. First of all, all registrars are now required to be certified and trained. In Connecticut it’s a very disparate system. We have 169 towns. Each town has two registrars, and a town clerk, all of whom are involved in the election in some way. And it makes it very, very difficult to get everybody up to speed and have the same standard in every single polling place.

You tried to offer streamlining of that a couple of years ago, and it didn’t go down too well in the legislature. Could you tell us what your plan was and why lawmakers didn’t take kindly to it?

Sure. My proposal was very simple. I felt we should have one registrar per town. And frankly I think it should be even less than that. Honestly I think we should have a regional system ultimately. Because in many of the towns the registrars are very, very part-time. In these tiny towns, such as the one I represented—Chaplin—at one time in my career. And Chaplin has 2,500 people total in the community, so naturally if you hire two registrars and a town clerk to do some of the town’s business, it’s expensive. More expensive than it should be, or they are not there very much.

So it’s an old-time patronage job, one of the few that’s left. And a lot of the people that do these jobs are elderly, they are party regulars, who are rewarded with this job. And a lot of them are wonderful, and very good at it. But it has created a situation that we don’t have a good system, in the sense that they have much time or energy for training, and it’s a very complex system. It’s very heavily regulated, and there’s a lot to know.

So my proposal was let’s just get down to a least one registrar per town rather than having one from each party. And that would make it a less partisan system and perhaps more efficient. But naturally because these are patronage jobs, the parties really resisted that. And of course the people in the jobs resisted it. So we made a compromise so that at least make sure everybody has training and certification to do the job. So that is what we have now. And honestly I think it’s making a big difference.

Okay. Well we’ll see how it works in November. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, thank you very much.

Thank you.