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

Connecticut lawmakers authorized state officials to borrow more than $25 million earlier this year to purchase more than 3,000 new voting machines, but it remains unclear when that equipment will be available for local election officials to use.

Stephanie Thomas, who is in her first term as Connecticut Secretary of the State, successfully lobbied her former colleagues in the legislature to approve the bond funding for a new generation of ballot tabulators.

That authorization was a big victory for Thomas and local election administrators who have raised concerns about the state’s existing ballot counting machines, which are more than 16 years old and are becoming more prone to jamming and breakdowns.

But the legislative signoff does not guarantee that state election officials will be able to purchase the new machines in advance of next year’s presidential election, as Thomas would like.

It’s now up to Gov. Ned Lamont, a second-term Democrat, to decide if and when the state actually spends the money to purchase new tabulators, which are the backbone of the state’s entire election system.

Lamont, who is the chairman of the State Bond Commission, has the final say in what the state borrows money for, and administration officials said last week that the governor has not set a timeline for when he will appropriate the money for the equipment.

“Ensuring free and fair elections and equitable access to the polling place is a priority for the Lamont administration,” said Julia Bergman, a spokesperson for the governor’s office. “We will continue to work with the Secretary of the State’s office to make resources available to meet those ends. To the extent additional capital investments are needed, we will consider those needs as we develop future bond commission agendas.”

Without action by the bond commission, state election officials are at a standstill.

Voting in Manchester in 2022. Mark Mirko / CT Public

Ticking clock

The Secretary of the State’s office said the next step in replacing Connecticut’s aging tabulators is soliciting bids from several manufacturers and deciding what equipment would be the best choice for the state’s election system.

That procurement process can’t even begin, however, until the bond commission borrows the money to fund the new machines.

Tara Chozet, a spokesperson for the Secretary of the State, said in June that Thomas was still hopeful that the state can roll out the new ballot tabulators ahead of the upcoming presidential election season, when voter turnout will be at its height.

But some local election officials stressed that the clock is ticking on that goal.

Connecticut’s presidential primary is set for April 30, 2024, and it will take some time for the state to purchase new machines, distribute them to local election offices and to train election workers to use the new technology.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, who served as Secretary of the State the last time Connecticut replaced its voting equipment, said replacing the existing tabulators is unlikely to be as difficult as the transition she oversaw in 2006 and 2007.

That process required both election workers and voters to make the swap from a mechanical voting machine to the electronic tabulators that optically scan the paper ballots.

Bysiewicz said her staff held a test run on the tabulators in several towns in 2006, and they spread out across the state in 2007 in order to educate voters and election workers on how to use the new machines.

“We were at fairs. We were at all kinds of heavily trafficked events to show people how to use them. We did public service videos. So we spent a better part of year rolling them out,” she said.

Timothy De Carlo, who has served as Waterbury’s Republican Registrar of Voters since 2011, agreed that swapping out the existing tabulators for a newer model should not be as difficult as the change in 2007, but he said it will still require some level of training for registrars and the people who staff local polling places.

That means the Lamont administration will need to make a decision in the near future about whether the new tabulators are an immediate priority.

“It all comes down to whether the governor is going to go forward with it,” said De Carlo, “and if he does, will it be 2024, 2025?”

People line up to vote at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 8, 2022, at Casablanca Hall in New Britain. People continued to form lines late afternoon. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Why now?

De Carlo is among a growing number of Democratic and Republican registrars who believe it is time for Connecticut to finance new election equipment.

The primary concern among those local election officials is that the ballot tabulators that Connecticut purchased in 2006 and 2007 are no longer being manufactured.

That has required local officials to repair the ballot tabulators with parts that are cannibalized from machines that were discarded by other states.

In recent elections, some of the ballot tabulators have broken down because of overheating or jamming from ballots that were wet or creased.

Bysiewicz said the tabulators at her local polling place in Middletown were among several machines that malfunctioned last August due to the high temperatures and humidity outside.

Those types of breakdowns have convinced Bysiewicz that it is time for the state to start planning for a new generation of voting technology.

“We’re in 2023, and we’re getting to the point where it’s probably time to order new voting machines,” she said.

In Waterbury, De Carlo said he works with a maintenance company to ensure that all of their ballot tabulators are operating properly before each election. But in recent years, he said, it’s been common for one to four of the machines in his city to break down on election day.

Those breakdowns have not inhibited voters from casting a ballot, he said, but it does complicate the work of election staff and makes it more difficult for municipalities to report election results in a timely manner.

De Carlo compared the current tabulators to an old car. They can still be operated with the right maintenance. But they become more prone to breakdowns every year.

“These machines are good, but they are outdated,” he said. “We don’t know what we are going to get each election.”

During the legislative session, Thomas explained to lawmakers the newer ballot tabulators would likely prevent the recurring problems local election officials have dealt with in recent years.

Several of the machines that Thomas would like to purchase are also capable of rapidly scanning and counting large batches of ballots in a shorter period of time, something the older machines can’t do.

Those medium- and high-speed tabulators could help larger municipalities, for instance, to process mail-in ballots, which can’t be counted until election day.

That newer technology would be helpful in high turnout elections and as Democratic lawmakers seek to implement no-excuse absentee voting in Connecticut.

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