Downsizing Newspaper Recommends Downsizing Registrars

Most of us would agree that Central Connecticut needs more than one daily newspaper. If there was any doubt it certainly was erased this week. On Monday the “New” Hartford Courant came out with its latest and most drastic downsizing. On Tuesday an editorial suggesting among other things that we should have a single elected registrar per municipality. However, downsizing to a single registrar will serve democracy no better than the continuous downsizing of the Courant. <read>

In Connecticut we have two elected registrars, a Democrat and a Republican in each of our one-hundred and sixty-nine towns. When a non-Democrat, non-Republican is elected registrar the law then calls for three registrars. The challenges, the potential problems, and the potential solutions all play differently in large cities, medium cities, and small towns. In large cities the elected registrars can be full time and professional with a professional staff – they can also be political hacks using excessive staffing to reward friends. In small towns they are in effect volunteers, often very part time, underpaid, overworked and often over their head in managing a system that has changed drastically, yet almost uniformly of high integrity and committed to Democracy. We and many others have concerns with this system, but any significant change must be complete and well thought out.

Case in point, Hartford and the Courant’s editorial:

Community activist Urania Petit has petitioned her way onto the Hartford ballot in November as a registrar of voters candidate for the Working Families Party. The party at last count had seven registered voters in the city. But due to a quirk in state law, if Ms. Petit finishes second, the city will have to have three registrars of voters, instead of the normal two, at an additional cost of about $200,000.

This is daft. No city in Connecticut needs three registrars. We don’t even see why they need two.

First, we disagree that the three registrars is a ‘quirk’ in the state law. Its the result of a two party system and two party thinking. Like the Courant we don’t agree with that part of the law, but we disagree with their solution.

Second, the editorial’s lack of imagination is daft. For a city the size of Hartford there should be no problem having three registrars and the costs should be minimal. Each city sets the budget, salary, hours, benefits, and staffing of their Registrars Of Voters Office. Hartford could simply cut staffing and perhaps cut registrars’ hours or salary when three are elected to do the job of two. Just cutting a full time staff position would go a long way toward reducing most of the $200,000.

For ages, municipalities have elected two registrars, virtually always one Democrat and one Republican. Apparently the idea was that they would serve as a check on each other, being from different parties, even though they are supposed to serve in a nonpartisan manner — “nonpartisan before 5 o’clock,” as one registrar put it. The wrinkle comes when a third-party candidate enters the field.

The Courant example demonstrates why two elected registrars are needed. One elected, political registrar by definition is not nonpartisan, would often be prone to partisanship, and would always be suspect. It would create a strong potential for the local equivalents of Ohio’s Ken Blackwell or Florida’s Katherine Harris to arise.

State law says the registrar candidates with the highest and second highest number of votes win the posts. But if a major-party candidate is not among the top two, that candidate is also named a registrar. So, if Ms. Petit outpolls either Democrat Olga Iris Vazquez or Republican Salvatore Bramante, all three must be named registrars.

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz said she could not recall a time when a third-party candidate was seated, but acknowledged that in Hartford “it is very possible.” The overwhelming number of registered Democrats, nearly 33,000, means Ms. Vazquez is a shoo-in. The GOP registration, under 2,000, is still greater than the Working Families’ seven. But the Working Families defeated five of six Republicans in last year’s council elections, electing two candidates to the GOP’s one, in large part by appealing to the nearly 10,000 unaffiliated voters in the city.

Other ‘quirks’ in the election law make it expedient for many voters to register as Democrats in Hartford to vote in primaries, but vote Working Families in the election to actually have their interests represented and keep the dominant party in check.

Here we have the crux of the problem and can see the obvious consequences of a simple solution. Change the law to have two registrars – the two highest vote getters of different parties. In Harford if the Working Families’ candidate wins we would still have the two leading parties represented. As we said earlier it would not be a big deal for Hartford to have three registrars, but for a small town three would seem especially cumbersome.

While we’re at it, why not create one registrar per town?

The post is vitally important, because it involves access to the ballot and voting rights, but in the past was not very complicated. In many small towns, retired people serve as part-time registrars. The level of professionalism varies.

But the job has gotten more complex. There have been numerous changes in election laws in recent years, plus increasing use of technology. Would it not make sense — and save money — to have one highly professional, nonpartisan registrar per town?

I agree with some of the arguments here. Elections could benefit from highly professional, non-partisan management, however, that is incompatible with having a single elected political registrar. Under a different, well thought out system of oversight with checks and balances a better system for Connecticut may well be possible.

Most states outside of New England have county election management by civil service officials. That can and does work. We hear about problems in Ohio, Florida, and California when that system breaks down. We don’t hear about success in those same states and many other states when things go reasonably well. Many of the problems have been under single partisan, elected state and county officials.

In Connecticut, perhaps electing two official registrars paid a small stipend to provide a check and balance over a professional civil service chief election official would provide the best of both worlds and would work for large cities. This would not work for small towns – a single chief election official and staff would need to serve several small towns – a change that would not easily be accepted in New England.

What clearly won’t work is half baked solutions.


3 responses to “Downsizing Newspaper Recommends Downsizing Registrars”

  1. The BRAD BLOG : 'Daily Voting News' For September 30, 2008

    […] CT: Downsizing Newspaper Recommends Downsizing Registrars […]

  2. ct registrar

    Thanks for the kind words, …we’ll talk about the others…

    This was my immediate response to the editorial.

    Two Registrars from opposing parties, rather than politicizing election management, guarantees bi-partisan elections and promotes public confidence.

    Voter registration, petitioning, referrendums, polling place staffing and the day to day operation of the Registrars staff and offices requires a bi-partisan approach. Hartford is a good example of the need for two (Or three) officials assuring non-partisan operation of polling places.

    The motivation of the editorial is the possibillity of a third party out polling one of the major parties and becoming a third Registar. If any minor party, or individual for that matter, generates enough support and votes to place second, then he has indeed earned a seat at the table. He then becomes that party’s watchdog and representative.

    But the year round duties related to party and nurturing of election workers requires the presence of both major parties.

    I seriously question the editorials claim of a $200,000 cost.

    The primary risk of having a single Registrar (Assuming they would still be elected) in each town, is the exclusion of the perpetually smaller party from having any role, and the public perception that would create.

    Through the bi-partisan management of their offices, it often happens that the minority Registrar has a primary role…Registrars have a way of finding the best way to get the job done. One often sees the ‘Honorary’ Registrar deferring to his counterpart on day to day operations while preserving the role of his party in the assurance of fair elections.

    Compesation and professionalism is a topic for another day…

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