Bill to allow fewer polling places in primaries back after 4 years

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Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester

Connecticut’s cities and towns could see small cost savings in future election cycles if lawmakers approve a bill that would allow town registrars to reduce the number of polling places in primaries.

The bill, originally written to apply only to towns with 15,000 or fewer registered voters, was expanded to cover all cities and towns before being sent to the Senate floor two weeks ago by the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

Other states have adopted similar laws, but Arizona has made headlines in recent weeks for the effects of its policy. During Arizona’s March 22 presidential primaries, the voter registrar in Maricopa County, the state’s largest, opted to open just 60 polling stations – down from more than 200 in 2012.

The state’s polls were officially closed at 7 p.m., but voters remained in line at some polling stations well after 11 p.m. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has called on U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a federal investigation into possible voter suppression.

Will Connecticut see the same result in an unexpectedly high-turnout election?

Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, who serves as co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, said he did not think so.

Under the legislation, any town’s registrars of voters would have the authority to reduce the number of polling stations up to 60 days before a scheduled primary. The registrars would also be able to designate new polling stations to replace any closed locations.

The bill does not make that power absolute, however. If any polling station is closed or replaced, the registrars would be required to notify the secretary of the state and all candidates on the ballot no later than 45 days before the primary.

Any candidate could object to the decision by filing an anonymous protest with the secretary of the state’s office no later than 30 days before the primary. If a protest is filed, the original designated polling stations would be restored.

If no objection is filed, the registrars would be required to notify all registered voters by mail about the primary’s designated polling stations no later than 25 days before the primary. Signs also would be posted at all closed polling stations to direct residents to open voting locations.

Advocates of the legislation say the cost savings would be significant and the checks in place would counter any possibility of selectively closing polling stations in ways that might sway the vote. Its detractors argue the bill’s provisions are not strong enough to prevent this sort of election tampering and could even result in lower voter turnout in some years.

This is not the first time Connecticut lawmakers have had this discussion.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

Four years ago, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed similar legislation that had a voter notification deadline more than a week closer to Election Day. Cassano said his committee advanced the bill to the Senate floor two weeks ago because he believes they have addressed the governor’s concerns.

“It’s not as easy at it sounds, but they came up with a compromise,” Cassano said. “I think we’ve addressed those issues (from four years ago).”

He said by giving the candidates “the right to veto” any polling station closures while providing voters with more-advanced notice, legislators have created an accountable system that could lead to municipal savings.

And the cost savings remain the bill’s largest selling point, Cassano said.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis looked at potential cost savings in Vernon and Tolland in 2012 to illustrate the effect of the legislation being considered in that session.

The nonpartisan analysis found Vernon could save about $3,300 for each polling station closed out of its six total. If Vernon were to close five polling stations, it would save roughly $16,500 in each primary it held. The savings for Tolland were smaller, since it has only two polling stations. The analysis found the town could save about $1,350 if it closed one.

Larger cities would benefit more than small and mid-sized towns, Cassano said. By closing polling stations in notoriously low-turnout precincts, staff could be consolidated to serve areas where turnout is traditionally higher. He said this would offset a larger number of voters turning out at fewer polling stations.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis noted in its assessment of this year’s bill that a small part of the cost savings would be offset by the requirement to notify voters by mail of polling station closures. It determined savings would vary by town, but would probably be less than $25,000 for each election.

Betsy Gara, executive director for the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing on Feb. 29, saying significantly lower turnout in primaries justifies closing some polling stations.

“An estimated 50 percent of the state’s 2.4 million registered voters aren’t even eligible to participate in primaries because they are not registered with a party,” Gara told legislators. “Requiring towns to use and staff the same number of polling places is expensive and unnecessary.”

In testimony submitted for the hearing, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities expressed support for the bill, but urged legislators to limit it to towns of no more than 40,000 residents and require registrars to decide on polling station closures 120 days before the primary instead of 60 days before.

A pair of Darien registrars also testified in favor of the bill during the hearing. John Visi and Kathy Hammell told legislators that any inconveniences were overstated, adding that “the drive to the central poll would be less than four miles for all voters.”

But support for the legislation was not unanimous. 

The state Freedom of Information Commission submitted testimony opposing the legislation, saying the provision that would allow any objecting candidate to remain anonymous should be removed. The commission argued the public has the right to know whether a candidate objects to certain polling station closures.

In contrast to their counterparts in Darien, Greenwich registrars Fred DeCaro III and Sharon Vecchiolla opposed the bill, saying it could “lead to mischief” and would undermine the consistency voters have in going to the same location for each election.

How turnout might be affected is a point of contention in the discussion. Ronald Schurin, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said there is evidence that polling station closures in other states have had a “significant impact” on access for low-income voters with transportation issues.

“Here in Connecticut, particularly in the eastern part of the state where polling places might be some distance from where somebody lives…there might be an impact,” Schurin said.

He said he would be “very surprised,” however, if already-low primary turnout would decrease significantly as a result of the legislation.

In 2012, Malloy’s veto message said the bill had “the potential to undermine the right to vote” through sudden poll closures without public input. He also took issue with the timetable for candidates to object to polling station closures. Cassano said these concerns have been addressed in this year’s bill.

A spokesman for Malloy said the governor is “not weighing in” on the current legislation at this time.

Cassano said he expects the bill to pass the legislature again, but has not had any conversation with the governor about whether he will sign it.

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill

CTMIRROR.ORG

Secretary of the State Denise Merrill

While Secretary of the State Denise Merrill supported the bill in 2012, her spokesman stopped short of endorsing this year’s legislation.

“There has never been a broad consensus on this particular approach,” said Patrick Gallahue, Merrill’s spokesman. “The secretary remains open to ideas and will continue to modernize elections in a way that will make our system more accurate and efficient while also protecting fairness.”

Gallahue said Merrill continues to advocate for alternative solutions. He said Merrill supports expanding absentee voting as well as exploring the possibility of conducting elections entirely by mail. A constitutional amendment under consideration in 2014 would have allowed greater consideration of such options, but it did not pass.

“These are the kinds of alternatives that could achieve flexibility and cost savings,” Gallahue said. “While the amendment was not successful in 2014, Secretary Merrill would be in favor of another attempt for such a proposal.”

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