Editorial: Diagnosis before cure. Planning before plunging ahead.

In the wake of the recent election day problems in Hartford, elsewhere in this election, and in previous elections, we have heard may cries to reform the system. To some extent, to us, they often sound like “Do something! Do anything!  Change the system now!”  For example <here>, <here>, and <here>. Perhaps Senator Chris Murphy best sums up the frustration and the problems in recent elections:<here>.

The Democrat called it “inexcusable” to have breakdowns, such as polling places in Hartford not opening on time during this month’s election – a mishap that prompted President Barack Obama to call in to WNPR-FM and plead with voters who couldn’t cast ballots to return to the polls later in the day. Murphy also pointed to other instances, such as in 2010 when there weren’t enough ballots in Bridgeport and in 2012 when there weren’t enough workers at the West Hartford polls.,,

A former state senator, Murphy said Connecticut is well past the point of incremental reform and needs comprehensive changes. He said the “balkanized” election system where autonomous local registrars run elections with little state oversight has “resulted in major problem after major problem” and stunted the development of voting technology in the state.

Here  is what the public and politicians, in general, do not know:

  • Running elections anywhere takes special training and expertise, much of which comes from experience working in the polls and managing elections on election days. Experienced gained one day at a time, for the most part, with one to three elections per year.
  • Outside of experienced officials in leadership positions, such as registrars, deputies, and moderators, nobody understands the complete picture of how the parts fit together, or how it could be modified, without damaging the system.  Even many of those officials do not have the prospective of the requirements in different size municipalities across Connecticut. Nor how the alternatives work, or do not work in other states.
  • Elected officials, except registrars, are naturally barred from election administration activities. Very few have any direct experience and little knowledge of the administration of elections – they do understand how to get elected, the requirements to get on the ballot, and campaign finance rules.
  • Other states with radically different elections administration organization had problems in this election and other recent elections.  Corruption, votes lost, massive absentee voting fraud, unauditable machines, questionable results that cannot be verified, long lines, voters denied access to the polls, and results provided days and weeks later than Connecticut.
  • Moving the process from elected registrars to municipal clerks is not as simple as it sounds. Registering voters is very similar to what clerks do. Today many do registrations for registrars in small towns.  Administering elections is different, planning a one day event, understanding and executing all the special activities before and after election day, recruiting a large one day staff, and then managing that huge event. Of course, clerks can learn and do elections, but many of the training and staffing challenges would remain, many of the constraints and benefits of local administration would remain. It is like saying that if the sewer department is working well, let them take over snow plowing and emergency management because the roads were not cleared well by public works; Or why not hand over managing defense to the Post Office since they wear uniforms and manage to deliver the mail so well.
  • Adding responsibility to the Secretary of the State will not cure many of the problems.  In some cases that would be a good idea, in others not so good. The Secretary should have independent authority to call for “discrepancy recanvasses” in cases like Bridgeport 2010 and Hartford absentee ballots ‘s in 2014. (So should the State Elections Enforcement Commission). But  having a strong Secretary of the State is not a cure all. The SOTS and few in the SOTS Office have basic and comprehensive experiences in local elections administration, even while they have a unique prospective not shared by others. (For what can go wrong, consider Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2000 and 2004 or Kansas today. For the limitations of a bi-partisan board of elections, see NY). There are advantages and disadvantages of any system.

Everyone should understand and recognize:

  • Radical change takes time and care to accomplish successfully and well.  Radical change means large risks of failure. Speed without expertise is a formula for failure. Look no farther than the original Obamacare web site for an example.  Look at our success instilling democracy in and  rebuilding Iraq.
  • Every system takes time to change.  Like rebuilding a railroad while keeping trains running.  You may need the old system while the new system is being constructed, comprehensive education and testing is necessary, just like obtaining and testing new railroad cars took several years of planning and testing.
  • Change costs money, for making the change, and for running the new system.  Electronic pollbooks, perhaps $2-3 million dollars, plus connecting every polling place to the Internet (Electronic pollbooks improves quality and efficiency, but do not make checking in any faster nor require fewer lines). Providing the opportunity for “voters to vote at any polling place” is hugely expensive, can delay results, and can take a lot of extra expense to avoid the risks of fraud, error, and protect the secret/anonymous vote.
  • It is human nature to claim that every wanted change, is a cure for the current problem (see: 9/11 Patriot Act).  When we want to increase turnout, every change is touted as a panacea for low turnout (Early voting decreases turnout, but is touted to increase it, as is every other reform. Some reforms do increase turnout). Similarly, every possible reform for Connecticut’s recent troubles will be  touted to speed results, shorten lines, and magically prevent all human errors.
  • As we have stated before, it is also human nature to ignore costs when we want something, yet complain of very small cost when we do not want to do something

Editorial, Diagnosis before cure. Planning before plunging ahead.

We agree in part with the other critics, that we need radical change in Connecticut election administration.  Yet, we need a carefully considered approach and a deliberate implementation of change. Our recommended approach is to do for elections what we have done for probate: Regionalize, Prioritize, and Economize. It won’t be easy, simple, or cheap in the short run, yet simply moving local administration to municipal clerks as many suggest would be a band-aid, with many of the same limitations and risks of the current system.

Yet Rome was not built in a day or a year or two.  Nor was probate reform ( where implementation took from 2009 to 2011). We need a thoughtful approach to reform. We should investigate what works well in other states, and fit the best to Connecticut.  We should look at the alternatives and choose wisely, and dare we mention, funding the reforms adequately. Change costs money for the change itself, and for the hoped for better result.

We see three stages 1) Investigating, proposing, estimating costs, and choosing the change (e.g. regional professional election administration) 2) Planning the change. (Exactly how many regions, exactly where they are, planning staffing, conversion tasks, along with the steps and effort involved in the implementing the change), and 3) actually implementing the change.

Regionalizaing elections is more complex than consolidating the probate system.  I suspect at least a year, maybe two for the 1st stage, another year for the 2nd stage and two years for the third.  How long did it take to plan and build t the  new New Haven to, Springfield rail line? Or just purchasing, testing, and deploying new rail cars?

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