Common Sense: Justified Confidence

Note: This is the fourteenth post in an occasional series on Common Sense Election Integrity, summarizing, updating, and expanding on many previous posts covering election integrity, focused on Connecticut.

“I think the biggest issue facing us is trust in the elections,” said Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of the state. – CNN: As Feds struggle, states create their own anti-election propaganda programs

Trust and confidence are important – Justified trust and justified confidence. – Luther Weeks, Facebook comment

Every time I hear election officials talk about ‘confidence’ I tend to hear what CNN heard, a desire for the public to be assured at all costs that elections can be trusted.  Whenever I get the chance, either publicly or one-on-one, I point out to officials that we agree, up to a point; I want the public to have confidence, justified confidence. I always remember the first time my wife and I passed out a flyer about election integrity concerns at a public hearing on our flawed post-election audits. An apparently respected registrar said to us:

You shouldn’t be passing that out, you will scare the public. If there is ever a problem, we will fix it in the backroom, just like we did with the lever machines – Respected Registrar who trains Moderators

One caveat, I don’t know that elections officials always intend to imply that weak, PR type of confidence. Sometimes I may be too sensitive, but no matter the intent, the public often hears what CNN heard.

Case in point, the election complaint settlement in Hartford, covered in yesterday’s Hartford Courant: Hartford Registrar of Voters Penalized:

The registrar, Giselle Feliciano, and Martin Allen Jones, a ballot moderator, violated state statute during the Hartford Democratic Town Committee primary in March 2018, according to a June 19 order from the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Feliciano and Jones agreed to a civil penalty of $750, which will be reduced to $500 if Feliciano repeats a certification class on absentee voting.The settlement was approved by the city’s corporation counsel, and will be paid by the city, according to city communications director Vas Srivastava.It stems from a complaint filed last year by Anne Goshdigian, a challenge slate candidate in the town committee primary, and Thomas Swarr, whose wife Donna Swarr was running on the same challenge slate…

The pair alleged they were trying to watch election officials count absentee ballots at City Hall about 1:30 p.m. March 6, 2018, when Jones said Goshdigian could not be in the room and all others needed to leave as well, including Jones himself.When Goshdigian and Swarr asked for written proof they had to leave the room Feliciano said Goshdigian could not be within a polling place during voting hours. City Clerk John Bazzano was consulted, and he said the room was not a polling place, according to the complaint.

“Feliciano then ‘changed tact,’ and asserted that it was within her authority to remove anyone disrupting the process,” the complaint said. The registrar called the police and had Goshdigian and Swarr removed.

The situation was partially resolved after Donna Swarr spoke with a state’s attorney, who confirmed to her and Feliciano that members of the public could observe absentee ballot counting.

But Feliciano still did not allow Goshdigian to observe the count, according to the complaint. And when Tom Swarr returned to City Hall that evening to observe the final absentee ballot count, he was again denied access .

Swarr said he’s frustrated that the commission’s decision doesn’t address the second incident.

According to the agreement the commission reached with Feliciano and Jones, it “does not believe that there was any untoward intent insofar as the handling of the absentee ballots themselves.” Feliciano admitted she did not know that the law required her to open the count to all members of the public.

“I don’t know how you could say she didn’t understand what the law was when I came back in the evening and was denied again,” Swarr said. And, the commission said it “does find a troubling lack of contrition and/or remorse in the Respondents’ statements in response to the allegations here. Their failure to acknowledge a material error of law in their answers to this matter weighs in the commission’s decision here…

The registrar’s procedural manual on counting absentee ballots also covers, on its second page, who may observe a count.Of what he saw, Swarr said the absentee ballet counting process seemed perfectly secure. However, the lack of transparency gave a false impression that the system was corrupt, he said.

“It’s silly to exclude people and basically create distrust of the system when letting people observe would add confidence in it,” Swarr said. “The lack of particpation is, to me, the greatest threat to Hartford elections. You should be encouraging people to come in and view and build confidence.

The one good thing is that their was a penalty for this violation, yet everything else should leave us all with less than justified confidence in the system:

  • Like many complaints, this one took a stretched-thin SEEC months (15)  after the election to resolve.
  • Although there was a penalty it was not paid by the Registrar or Moderator involved, like the legal defense it was paid by the City – what actual penalty is there in that?
  • The Registrar can save the City almost nothing after tuition and mileage, if she spends a half a day taking an applicable class. Yet the Moderator is not required to be recertified. In the law, the Moderator is just as much, if not more, responsible for following the law here.
  • Sadly, if the Moderator were re-certified he would not be taught about absentee counting  – that is not covered as we recently pointed out to the General Assembly, to no avail, as they cut the moderator certification requirements in half.
  • And perhaps, worst of all, there was no real remedy to the problem. In one of the most partisan election situations, with insiders in charge of an election won by insiders, there was no transparency, no public verification. A complete lack of credibility and a formula for cheating available for the future: Steal some votes, if someone tries to watch and complains, have your city pay a small fine and WIN!

As we have said before Connecticut is above average in election integrity and security for statewide elections, less so for local elections. Above average, is not saying much. Many states, including Connecticut, have a long way to go to achieve justified confidence. PR alone will not protect us from outsiders and insiders. Will not protect us form loss of confidence in democracy.

 

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