A clarification has been added to the bottom of this story.
Mansfield — Byron Bunda, a junior at the University of Connecticut, had been looking forward to casting his first vote for president last Tuesday. But a voter registration snafu in Mansfield involving the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group denied Bunda and 92 other voters, mostly UConn students, the ability to cast their ballots.
Ninety-three voter registration cards that were supposed to be submitted to the Mansfield Registrar of Voters were lost in a filing cabinet and not recovered in time for the election, according to Andrea Epling, Mansfield’s Democratic Registrar of Voters.
Bunda, of Larchmont, N.Y., said he filled out a registration card with ConnPIRG in the middle of UConn’s Storrs campus on the last day of registration, Oct. 23.
“There was no problem there. I thought everything was fine,” Bunda said. “But then I got an email the night before the election telling me that [ConnPIRG] didn’t get the forms in, and that I wouldn’t be able to vote unless I wanted to do this special ballot just for the president.”
Alex Bell of Seattle, said she and her friend, Alli McLellan, registered to vote through ConnPIRG on the same day. But when the two 18-year-old UConn freshmen arrived at the Mansfield Community Center to vote on Election Day, Bell was told her name was not on the list, while McLellan cast her vote without any issues.
Bell said she did not get any notification that there was a problem.
“I don’t think it was organized,” said Epling, referring to ConnPIRG’s UConn voter registration effort, which up until this year had a reliable history with the town. “I don’t think it was taken seriously enough. A lot of kids were really upset.”
Rachel Konowitz, the ConnPIRG organizer at UConn, said the organization had its 60 volunteers working on campus as early as September to register voters, mostly students, for the Nov. 6 election. The West Hartford-based nonprofit group’s largest effort occurred the week before the registration submission deadline. In total, ConnPIRG signed up some 3,500 voters during this election season, Konowitz said.
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more commonly referred to as the “Motor Voter Act,” allows any person or organization to register voters using official registration cards obtained through the local registrar’s office.
Since UConn is so large, the heads of organizations participating in the Motor Voter Act, such as ConnPIRG or UConn’s Student Government, are required to meet with Mansfield voting officials to learn the process. Epling said she explains how to fill out the cards properly and strongly advises organizers to return cards to her office in a timely manner.
The cutoff date for registration cards submitted in bulk through the Motor Voter Act, known as the “mail-in deadline,” was Oct. 23 at 5 p.m., Epling said. The bulk delivery can either be mailed or brought directly to the registrar’s office.
On Nov. 1 at about 6:15 p.m. Konowitz called Epling and told her she had found 93 misplaced voter registration cards in a filing cabinet, Epling said.
Epling said she immediately contacted Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who said that if the walk-in registrations weren’t received by 8 that night, they would not be accepted.
Another voter registration deadline — the “walk-in deadline” — allows an individual voter to submit his or her registration card to the registrar’s office in person. The walk-in deadline was initially set for Oct. 30, but due to Hurricane Sandy, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy extended the deadline to Nov. 1 at 8 p.m., said Peggy Reeves, the assistant to the Secretary of the State for Elections, Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs.
Epling instructed Konowitz to contact all the people whose registration cards were found in the filing cabinet. Of the 93, eight people “walked-in” their registration in Mansfield before the 8 p.m. deadline.
Bunda said he received an email from Konowitz at 3:46 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 5, the eve of Election Day. It read: “I am writing to apologize to you because when we collected your voter registration form on 10/23 it was not turned in on time and therefore you were not registered to vote. We only recently discovered this problem. This should not have happened and for that I am very sorry.”
“It was pretty upsetting,” Bunda said, “especially considering it was the people who had been hounding people to register and then you do what they want you to do.”
ConnPIRG’s President Allison Schilling addressed the mistake in a written statement:
“Having run voter registration drives for years at UConn, we take great pains to make sure every form we collect is turned in promptly and properly. Our efforts have helped tens of thousands of students register to vote, including over 3,500 this fall. Any one form being handled improperly is one too many and we deeply regret that these forms were not turned in before the mail-in deadline.”
Schilling confirmed in her statement that ConnPIRG tried to contact the affected voters and offer the walk-in option. The organization also informed students they could vote in their hometowns if they were already registered there, a solution that offered little consolation to out-of-state students or those who don’t have transportation on campus.
Reeves, the assistant to the Secretary of the State, said these kinds of mishaps are common in big elections, but state election officials rarely hear about them because the local registrars “are the election officials in charge,” she said.
Epling, the Mansfield Democratic Registrar of Voters, said absentee ballots are always a voting option for UConn students who are registered to vote in their hometowns, but she does not necessarily recommend them as the solution to the voting problem that happened in Mansfield on Election Day. Epling said when same-day voter registration becomes available in Connecticut for the November 2013 election, it will eliminate many voter registration issues.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story gave the erroneous impression that Epling was recommending that UConn students obtain absentee ballots from their hometowns to avoid voter registration problems in the future. The last sentence of the story now portrays her views more accurately.
This story was written and reported by Elizabeth Bowling, a 7th-semester journalism major at the University of Connecticut who is from Plainville. It was edited by UConn Journalism Assistant Professor Marie K. Shanahan.