On primary eve, Merrill calls GOP ballot suit ‘regrettable distraction’

Connecticut’s chief elections official insisted Monday that her office acted properly in awarding the top line on the November ballot to the Democratic Party, despite a lawsuit from Republicans that claims their candidates should appear first.

Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill also announced measures she hopes will enhance turnout at Tuesday’s primaries for the U.S. Senate and House, the General Assembly and select municipal offices. One of them is an easy way for voters to find their polling place.

“We are confident we have consistently interpreted the law and applied it correctly,” Merrill said during a mid-morning press conference in her Capitol office.

The secretary referred to the lawsuit filed Friday by the state Republican Party as a “regrettable distraction” and a “waste of taxpayers’ money” that will siphon crucial resources from her office during a busy state campaign season.

“My staff is already stretched thin trying to manage this election,” she said, noting that the office received more than 5,000 telephone calls on Election Day alone in 2010, the last statewide election.

Merrill, a Hartford Democrat, also called Republican accusations that her position was motivated by partisan politics “an insult” to her and her staff. “We look at the law and interpret the law as professional election administrators,” she said. “I’m sorry to see this sort of statement made.”

The dispute centers on the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, which Democrat Dannel P. Malloy won, outpolling Greenwich Republican Tom Foley 567,278 votes to 560,874. But while Foley appeared in just one place on the 2010 ballot — the line for the Republican nominee — Malloy received 540,970 votes on the Democratic line, and 26,308 votes by virtue of also being the nominee of the Working Families Party.

The state GOP cited Section 9-249a of the Connecticut General Statutes. It states that “the party whose candidate for governor polled the highest number of votes in the last-preceding election” appears first on the ballot.

And it also states that “other parties who had candidates for governor in the last-preceding election” would have their candidates on future ballots “in descending order, according to the number of votes polled for each such candidate.”

Merrill wrote to Republican State Chairman Jerry Labriola on July 27 that Democrats earned the top spot given that Malloy garnered the most votes for governor — regardless of the fact that he received them from two different party lines on the 2010 ballot.

“Unfortunately the secretary’s unfounded and apparently partisan-driven position leaves us no choice but to seek redress in the courts,” Labriola wrote in a statement last week.

The two sides now head to a Tuesday hearing in Hartford Superior Court.

Also Monday, Merrill announced a hotline and two new web features to encourage more Democrats and Republicans to participate in Tuesday’s primaries.

The secretary’s office and the State Elections Enforcement Commission will again monitor a hotline to hear concerns of any voters who notice any inappropriate behavior at the polls. Concerns can be reported by calling 1-866-733-2463 or by sending an email to elections@ct.gov.

To help voters find their precinct quickly, the secretary announced a new online application available at at www.sots.ct.gov on the homepage of her office website.

By clicking on the red, white and blue “Where Do I Vote” button, voters can enter their home address and learn the location of their polling place, and directions on how to get there from their home.

Given that Connecticut completed the redistricting process last winter that re-sets the boundaries of its U.S. House and state legislative districts, many voters could be confused about where to cast their ballot.

“This is another great example of technology making it easier than ever to take part in the democratic process,” Merrill said. “By providing this free service to anyone with Internet accessibility, I hope many voters take advantage of easily finding their polling location and go out and vote.”

Malloy is among those changing polling places since last fall, when he voted at the Annie Fisher School in Hartford. This year, the polling place for his West End neighborhood is the Hartford Seminary.

Merrill said based on primary turnout in recent years, she expects Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican contests to attract 25 percent to 30 percent of eligible voters, though it could be higher in the 5th Congressional District, where three Democrats and four Republicans are seeking their parties’ nominations.

“We have some very hot elections in Connecticut this year,” she said. “They’re being watched nationally.”

The secretary’s Internet site also offers a second new feature that allows residents to confirm if they are registered to vote. This can be resolved simply by entering their name and date of birth into the site.