Bysiewicz: Bridgeport ballot snafu not her fault

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz denied bearing any responsibility Wednesday for the failure of Bridgeport officials to order sufficient ballots for Tuesday's election.

"I lay it squarely on the registrars of voters," said Bysiewicz, who oversaw the junking of Connecticut's lever voting machines in 2006 for a system of paper ballots and optical scanners.

The 2006 law proposed by Bysiewicz and passed by the legislature did not require local officials to order sufficient ballots, but Bysiewicz said her office advised registrars to order one ballot for every voter.

"We should have a state law," Bysiewicz said. "I didn't think it was necessary to legislate common sense, but obviously it's necessary."

Her office issued a press release in 2008 making that suggestion. It could not immediately locate any directive issued this year instructing registrars to order a minimum number of ballots.

Bysiewicz, who is the chief elections official for Connecticut, said she does not monitor the purchase of ballots, nor does her office make spots checks on the availability of ballots.

So no one noticed this year when registrars in Bridgeport ordered only 21,000 ballots for nearly 70,000 voters, a gamble that voter turnout would not exceed 30 percent.

Bridgeport ran out of ballots in 12 of 23 polling places, roiling a close election for governor and sending Democrats to court for an order keeping the polls open until 10 p.m.

Bysiewicz laid the blame on Bridgeport's two registrars of voters, Democrat Sandi Ayala and Republican Joseph Borges.

"Towns are allowed to provide as many ballots as they think appropriate," Bysiewicz said, adding it was unfortunate that some communities, such as Bridgeport, did not follow her advice that local officials prepare at least one ballot for each registered voter.

Ayala and Borges could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Secretary of the State-elect Denise Merrill of Mansfield said she wasn't prepared to recommend a specific threshold now, but said a mandated minimum should be set in legislation developed in cooperation with municipal officials.

"We need to set a standard and we have to enforce it," said Merrill, the current majority leader of the state House of Representatives.

But Merrill said state and local officials also need to stop ignoring an underlying problem behind many Election Day problems, and other near-mishaps that never surface: funding.

"Elections are the last place where we should be trying to save money," she said, adding that while machine ballots cost about 50 cents per copy, many communities aren't prepared to spend an extra $10,000 or $15,000 to add 20,000 to 30,000 ballots when expectations rise for voter turnout.

Judy Beaudreau, the Vernon Democratic registrar and a former president of the Connecticut Association of Registrars of Voters, said municipal election budgets are notoriously under-funded.

"If any budget is cut anywhere in a town, it's usually the election budget," she said, adding it's often a case of assuming the proverbial roof will get fixed before it starts to rain again.

In other words, town officials reduce or under-fund ballot preparation or other election accounts during the budget adoption process, enjoying the savings in the short-term and assuming additional money will somehow be found later - given the importance of properly run elections.

But what usually happens, Beaudreau said, is that the sufficient funds aren't identified later, and election officials are under pressure to economize.

"We deal with clearly insufficient funding" frequently, she said, noting how her community in the spring of 2007 budgeted just $1 for primaries in the 2007-08 fiscal year. That happened despite early indications that there would be high-profile presidential primaries in both major parties - indications that became reality in Connecticut in February 2008.