Thaler Hefel inserts his ballot into the tabulator with his child, Heia, on his shoulders at the Stonington Borough Fire House. All five of the Connecticut’s congressional districts are on the ballot, along with high-profile contests for governor, U.S. Senate, statewide candidates for constitutional office and dozens of General Assembly seats. Greg Miller / CT Public

Connecticut’s top elections official is asking to borrow roughly $25 million this year to replace the state’s aging voting equipment to prevent election-day breakdowns and speed up ballot counting in larger municipalities.

Stephanie Thomas, who was elected to her first term as Secretary of the State last year, testified in front of a panel of lawmakers earlier this month and presented a plan to purchase 3,040 new ballot tabulators for local election offices.

Those tabulators are the backbone of Connecticut’s current election system. The machines, which are used at every polling place throughout the state, are responsible for processing and recording the choices that voters make on their paper ballots.

The tabulators in use now were put into service more than 16 years ago, and the original manufacturer of those machines is out of business.

Thomas Baker, left, hands out a sticker to Maribel Martinez at Casablanca Hall in New Britain. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Thomas said the age of the equipment and the dwindling number of spare parts for the machines has made it increasingly necessary for the state to purchase newer technology.

“I think that any state that cares about its population should be investing in the very foundation of our democracy,” she said. “Nothing happens without fair, accurate, safe elections, and to not invest in both the human capital and the technology, I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

In past years, Thomas said, election officials in Connecticut bought up used tabulators from other states so they would have a ready supply of spare parts if the ballot counting machines broke down. But cannibalizing older machines can only last for so long, she said.

“Each passing year, there are fewer of these available anywhere else in the country,” Thomas said.

“It’s not that we’re in a dire situation right this second, but the writing is on the wall,” Thomas told the CT Mirror. “The last thing we want to do is wait until there’s a total failure before we start to replace them.”

Thomas, a Democrat, is not the only person to call for the state to replace the existing tabulators.

Dominic Rapini, the 2022 Republican candidate for Secretary of the State, also recognized the need to replace the state’s voting equipment. It was one of the few things that he and Thomas could agree on.

During a debate last year, Rapini called the tabulators the “core” of Connecticut’s election system. He said the equipment was vital public infrastructure, just like the state’s roads and bridges. And he argued the state needed to invest in newer tabulators to preserve the reliability of the state’s elections.

“My plan is to make sure we have the next generation of tabulators,” Rapini said. “I believe the taxpayers of Connecticut have to pay for that so that we have an even distribution of these new machines. I think lawmakers owe it to Connecticut to make that happen.”

Without that investment, Rapini argued, the machines would continue to create problems in voting precincts throughout the state.

Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas shown here before the election in a debate with candidate Dominic Rapini. Mark Mirko | Connecticut Public

In recent elections, some local administrators have encountered problems with feeding paper ballots into the older machines.

During the August primary in 2022, for instance, some of the tabulators used to count votes in Middletown broke down because of the excessive heat, causing the paper ballots to get jammed up.

The aging tabulators also encounter issues when the paper ballots get wet or when absentee ballots are crinkled or folded.

Giselle Feliciano, the Democratic Registrar of Voters in Hartford, said even small drops of water from an umbrella or someone’s rain coat can cause the paper ballots to jam up in the older machines. That, in turn, requires poll workers to manually record the ballot in the system.

In Hartford, Feliciano said her office maintains roughly 52 tabulators. They have a primary machine and backup for 24 different polling locations throughout the city, she said.

Feliciano said the city has a good company to service that equipment, but she said it is time for the state to consider buying a new generation of ballot tabulators.

“I’m pretty sure I’m not the only registrar that would feel or say the same thing: It is due time,” she said. “It is time that the state provide this.”

Wearing masks and gloves, volunteers at Hartford City Hall open absentee ballots, making sure they are signed and stamped, and put into a machine to count. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Thomas asked state lawmakers to approve funding for around 3,000 traditional tabulators, which allow Connecticut voters or election workers to feed ballots in one at a time.

But she also asked the legislature to approve more than $2.6 million for 40 new medium and high-speed tabulators, which are capable of scanning and recording hundreds of ballots in a much shorter time frame.

If the legislature approves the request, Thomas said those high-speed tabulators will help some of Connecticut’s larger towns and cities to report results more quickly on election night.

The high-speed tabulators, Thomas said, would be particularly helpful in municipalities that receive a large number of absentee ballots, which cannot be counted until election day.

The absentee ballots, which are either mailed in or dropped off, often arrive creased or folded, making them harder to process on the older machines. And currently, the ballots can only be fed through the tabulators one at a time.

Scanning the absentee ballots through the older tabulators can be so laborious, Thomas said, that some local election officials opted in recent years to count those ballots by hand instead.

Chris Prue, the president of the Registrars of Voters Association of CT, said he worries that more towns and cities will be forced to resort to counting by hand if the state puts off financing for the new tabulators much longer.

“Without this much needed funding towns across, CT may see a decrease in speed in which results from election day will be available,” said Prue, who also serves as the Democratic Registrar of Voters in Vernon. “Election officials will be forced to hand count tens of thousands of paper ballots without functioning tabulators.”

Thomas said the high-speed tabulators her office reviewed allows stacks of ballots to be loaded into the machines and scanned automatically. And they can function even if ballots come in crumpled or folded, she said.

The newer tabulators also include more advanced security, Thomas said, and the machines provide election workers with a digitized record of the results, something the older machines don’t do.

That will allow election workers to share results with her office on election night, Thomas said.

Thomas said her goal is to have new tabulators in place for the next presidential election.

But there is still a lot of work to be done between now and then. Thomas said she wants to provide state lawmakers with demonstrations of how the newer tabulators work before the legislature votes on her request.

If the funding is approved, the state will need to solicit offers from several election equipment manufacturers. And Thomas’s office will need to train local election workers and educate voters about how to use the new technology.

Andrew joined CT Mirror as an investigative reporter in July 2021. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Andrew was a reporter at newspapers in North Dakota, West Virginia and most recently South Carolina. He’s covered business, utilities, environmental issues, the opioid crisis, local government and two state legislatures. Do you have a story tip? Reach Andrew at 843-592-9958