As the November election entered the early afternoon, poll workers in the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut began to notice something strange.  With many hours of voting left, there was an unusually small amount of ballots remaining. Those concerns quickly turned to nightmares as precincts all across the city ran out of ballots. Confusion and tempers grew as fast as the lines voters were forced to stand in.  People began to turn away without voting, their civic duty inaccessible.

Registrars were told by the Secretary of State to photo copy ballots at the city print shop.  They began delivering the needy precincts packets of 100 ballots at a time. People who waited were given the opportunity to vote on a photocopied ballot. The State’s Democratic Party sued the City for not providing enough ballots and asked for immediate action. Superior Court Judge Marshall K. Berger, Jr. made the ruling that the polls at 12 precincts would remain open until 10PM, two hours beyond the normal closing. During this extra time about 500 votes were cast.

There is a litany of questions that Bridgeport’s issues give rise to. Can you photocopy ballots for voter use?  Can those photocopied ballots be challenged to treat them differently than normal ballots? What about a challenge to the votes that were made between the hours of 8PM and 10PM? Would either of these challenges lead to an equal protection claim? Can the voters who were turned away find success in a claim against the state?  But perhaps the biggest and most important question for the future is: How did this happen?

Bridgeport voter registrar’s office ordered only 21,000 ballots for over 69,000 registered voters in the city. As was typical in mid-term elections, the registrar anticipated a relatively low turnout.  However, an extremely close Gubernatorial battle and a very recent visit to the city by President Obama likely helped to spur the voter turnout to a number the city was simply not prepared to handle.

So the Bridgeport precincts did what they could.  They made photocopies of a ballot and began to administer those to the incoming voters. However, the paper was not the usual thickness of a ballot, and therefore could not be read by the optical scanners the jurisdiction uses to count ballots (leading to a 2-day manual count and a delay in results).  A total of 23,185 ballots were cast in Bridgeport, which means at least 2,185 of those are photocopied versions.  Since the use of photocopied ballots is technically contrary to Connecticut State law, State Republican chairman Chris Healy threatened a lawsuit to keep Connecticut from counting those ballots. However, GOP candidate Tom Foley decided not to challenge them once he conceded the race and a challenge and recount seem unlikely at this point.

Everyone knows budget concerns are affecting government.  As this blog has noted previously, state election offices have been hit particularly hard because these fiscal crises come at a time when many states need more money to implement new equipment, overhaul training or administration, or are otherwise in dire straits financially.  While the precise reason for the Bridgeport shortage is being investigated, the voter registrar for the city has already admitted that cost was a factor in determining how many ballots to order (although the Mayor vehemently denies that the shortage of ballots due to financial reasons).

To combat any issues mirroring Bridgeport’s in the future, the Connecticut General Assembly introduced new legislation designed to require precincts to have enough ballots for each voter in the district. The law would designate unused state funds from the Citizens Election Program (as discussed in an earlier post) to purchase the ballots for every district.  This is designed to address the Bridgeport problems, but also to speed things up at the polls.  Shortages of ballots tend to create longer lines at the polls and many people turn away if they cannot vote immediately.

Though the General Assembly’s bill would certainly address the issue of producing ballots, even more action may be needed.  Some have called for state-wide electronic voting machines, (which would solve other paper problems that were observed at this election, including a bag of uncounted ballots found a day after the election) even though the optical scan machines are only 4 years old, and others have called for a more comprehensive overhaul of election administration, including giving the secretary of state authority to compel registrar’s to take certain action.  Although it looks for now like a true crisis was addressed with quick response, immediate reaction is already being called for to effect changes before the 2011 mayoral elections. Maybe Bridgeport’s ordeal will help spur improvements in election administration for Connecticut state-wide.

Alexander Grout is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.

Permalink: http://electls.blogs.wm.edu/2011/02/28/the-nightmares-from-bridgeport/

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