Public hearings for 15 election related bills – Update: Our Testimony

Note: The General Administration and Elections Committee has taken up several election bills and concepts for this session. We are optimistic that some of the concepts will be developed and passed to provide increased election integrity.  Many of the bills taken up, often well intended, have unintended negative consequences. We are highlighting several of them to point out highlighting several of them to point out the good, the bad, and the unbelievable.

Update: 1/14/2011:

Today we provided testimony on ten bills.  We talked six times and complemented the Committee on their new format of handling bills one at a time, allowing each person who wanted to the opportunity to testify on each bill separately.  It worked very well and did not take as much time as one would expect over the old format of one opportunity per person for the day.  Most of the testimony today was agreement or friendly disagreement between registrars, town clerks, state officials, and advocates.  In the end we expect that better laws will result. <our testimony>

Related: Secretary of the State Merrill’s press conference CTNewsJunkiee report and CTMirror.

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On Monday the General Administration and Elections Committee will hold hearings of 15 elections related bills <agenda>

Most of these bills became publicly available on the Legislature’s website on Wednesday morning and late Wednesday they appeared on the agenda for Monday’s public hearing. A lot to absorb in a few days, yet we can say at this point that there are some good, not so good, and some highly questionable proposals in these bills.

Several of the bills are consolidations and committee rewrites of other bills, specifically for no-excuse absentee voting and an associated Constitutional amendment. One focuses on “Election Integrity” dealing with some of the issues raised by ballot shortages in Bridgeport, moderator training, registrars identifying polling places to the Secretary of the State etc. Another focuses on “Post-Election Audits”, authorizing local officials to audit via “independent machine rather than a tabulator” as an alternative to the current manual count.

Many of the bills are “Technical Bills” primarily intended to make small “technical” changes to the statutes to adjust to the move from lever machines to optical scanner. By our count these bill total 256 pages of details and redundancy since many address the same existing statutes. It seems they must have been written by different groups but perhaps based on previous bills which failed to pass the legislature over the last three years.  We are in the process of reading through the bills to prepare detailed testimony for Monday, with suggestions for revisions, deletions and improvements. After reading through all the bills and discussing some portions with other advocates we can summarize a few items at this point:

It is all well and good to replace “machine” with “tabulator”, replace “registrars” with “registrars of voters”, and remove “he”s throughout, we doubt these changes will make any difference in the interpretation of the law by registrars of voters or the courts.

There are many changes that seem necessary to the conduct of elections by optical scanner that are not included. For instance, several sections do not seem to recognize that in addition to optical scanners and absentee ballots we now have polling place paper ballots, both scanned and hand counted to deal with secure and count.

The election laws, I suppose like many others, remain highly convoluted from amendments over the years and redundant. For example there are extensive, almost completely redundant, separate sections for primaries and elections.  The problem is that they often differ in critical, substantial ways that make little sense. One bill makes a positive change that would allow officials from other towns to serve in primaries as they the existing law allows for elections. Asked to serve in another town for a primary, I declined to avoid breaking the law.

Within the bills are many good changes as well as some needing improvement. For example, the bill for “Integrity of Elections” calls for registrars to file plans for ballot printing with the Secretary of the State, locations of each polling place, and the names of moderators for each polling place to the Secretary of the State in advance of the election. Our reading indicates that moderators can be rejected by the Secretary but with no specified deadline for such rejections. We have called for the Secretary of the State to have an accurate list of polling places to restore the integrity of the post-election audits.  While we applaud that change to enable an accurate list,we will also suggest a possibly more efficient method to accomplish that same goal.

But also within these 256 pages are several significant changes that may or may not be advisable. For instance, one calls for a demonstration “device” for voting in each polling place instead of a demonstration “machine” – it is hard to tell what would satisfy the requirement or if such would also be required for the IVS machines intended for voters with disabilities; our reading of another clause intended to codify the current recanvass procedures would eliminate a critical step in the process; another in our reading would significantly change the counting of cross-endorsed candidate votes – to the likely detriment of candidates and voters.

I am a strong supporter of new techniques and technologies that support independent machine auditing, but we will oppose change authorizing local officials to audit via “independent machine rather than a tabulator” as an alternative to the current manual count. While well intended, the proposed law provides no restrictions on such a machine, no requirements for the process, no standards, no guarantee the process would be anything like the successful example in Humboldt County, CA, and no budget for implementation. Voting integrity and confidence require that any independent machine audit be required to meet requirements that provide for public transparency and validation.  In other words, vendors need to dot the “i”s and cross the ‘t”s in software and hardware products, while the law must require election officials to also dot the “i”s and cross the ‘t”s in implementing such audits. Municipalities that balk at spending a few hundred dollars on an audit when they are randomly selected are hardly in a position to acquire such equipment, let alone evaluate the equipment, and develop an effective, satisfactory process.

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