CT SOTS Denise Merrill Reviews Assembly; Election Reform; Malloy; Senate Race
JULY 20, 2011
The following is the transcript of a phone conversation between Connecticut
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, who took office in January of this year and previously
served as House Majority Leader in the CT General Assembly and myself;
the conversation requested by Hartford Government Examiner as a wrap-up
of the recently completed Connecticut General Assembly session.
Examiner: Ok, you are on the record, Madame Secretary.
Denise: Oh boy, Ok. Haha. That sounds ominous.
Examiner: You were recently honored by the Girl Scouts. Could you tell me about your activities with the Girl Scouts at the Capitol?
Denise: I have created an honorary Girl Scout Troop here at the Capitol, and I think I admire the Girl Scouts because they are training future women leaders. They are really effective at promoting girls and having them understand what it means to be a leader, to take risks and to be articulate. So I have put them together with mentors here at the Capitol and they’re appreciative of the fact that I was trying to make a connection between the girls and the women leaders.
Examiner: Could you give me a broad overview of what you think about the General Assembly session just completed from the Secretary of the State’s standpoint?
“It was a very productive session”
Denise: For me, it was a very productive session. I was tossed into some issues I didn’t anticipate I was going to have to be dealing with when; I guess it’s fair to say the Bridgeport fiasco occurred on Election Day where there was a substantial glitch in the election process. And immediately I knew that we could never let that happen again, and certainly not while I’m here. But I convened a forum, I got some ideas on how we could improve our system and actually right now I’m typing up notes from our first task force meeting that I put in place—The Elections Performance Task Force—[meeting for the first time that morning]. Meanwhile in the interim I did pass some pretty significant legislation through the General Assembly to bring some accountability to a very local system of elections. I have been very interested in increasing voter participation, so I’ve launched a voter participation initiative that’s not legislative, but will be eventually. Legislatively we passed our ballot integrity bill, which will give my office some voice in the ordering of ballots. It turns out there is very little oversight of local elections, so the bill we passed will require every town to have an emergency plan so that town councils…everyone… will know what to do when something is going wrong in an election. They’ll know where the keys are to the janitor’s office if that’s what they need to get to the copy machine or whatever the issue is. So that was a major piece of legislation. But it will also give my office more voice when something is going wrong with an election on Election Day. For example it will give me some ability to come into the polling place should something be going wrong in some way, shape or form. So this is meant for very emergency situations but I think it’s an important step.
Examiner: A constitutional amendment regarding elections was proposed, did that proposal pass the Assembly session and what was that about?
Fate and future of proposed election reform constitutional amendment
Denise: No, I could not get that onto the floor. I think we had wide support for the idea. My proposal for a constitutional amendment was to allow us to look at things like early voting, no-fault absentee ballots, same-day registration—things that would allow us to modernize our election system. And in Connecticut we have this weird provision—we’re one of only two states that has this in our constitution—that says that ballots can only be cast on election day which basically precludes us from making many of the changes many other states have been able to make. Something like 35 other states have gone to more convenient ways, I’d say, of voting. And also, I’d say, opening up the process to get more voters voting. Because of the constitutional amendment it’s a very high number of votes you need to pass it on the floor, you need to get three fourths, 75%, majority of the votes, not just a simple majority, so in the crush of business and in the budget negotiations we didn’t get it there, but I’m sure we will get it onto the floor next year and it will still be in time to put it on the ballot in 2014[once passed by the General Assembly 75% majority, it still must pass a majority vote by the voters on election day as a state constitutional amendment]. But I’m certainly going to put it out again next year.
Examiner: In Connecticut we have an unusual situation in that local registrars and districts have more authority in running elections than in other states. Is that true?
Denise: It’s a very local system, and yes registrars are very much in charge of local elections. Actually it’s really the moderator at each polling place.
Examiner: The moderators do seem stressed.
Denise: Well, it’s a long day; technologically we’re far behind the times of many other states. Many other states are going towards electronic polling booths. We still have little old ladies crossing off hand written lists. There’s a lot of stress. And that’s part of the reason we have mistakes. Where there are mistakes its almost always human error. Machines rarely make mistakes. So we’re trying to improve some of that. I think we should make the system streamlined, I should say, modernize it, come into the 21st century. We’re far behind the times and it shows.
President Obama and the Bridgeport ballot shortage
Examiner: I noted that in a Hartford Courant op-ed you had written that an appearance by President Obama at the Marina at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport the Saturday before the election spiked the voter turnout in Bridgeport on election day 2010 and that had much to do with an unexpectedly high turnout in Bridgeport that day, affecting the ballot shortage that day. Is that the case?
Denise: Absolutely, that’s why we ran out of ballots. Yes absolutely. There was something like 40,000 people who showed up when usually they only get about 20,000. It did influence the number of people who came out. People were quite excited about it and that kind of major event is obviously going to inspire people to go vote, or at least remind them that there is a vote. I would say that’s probably the chief reason they ran out of ballots.
Examiner: So now what changes have occurred legislatively about what registrars do in terms of reporting to the Secretary of the State and their ballots?
Denise: The legislation says that the registrars will report to our office 30 days in advance of the election as to how many ballots they have ordered and they need to tell us why they ordered that number. And they need to base it on past performance, I think the past 4 elections, we have regs on all this, but they have to show that it’s in line with similar elections. Let’s say it’s a presidential election, it has to be roughly analogous. If we see anything amiss with that we can require them to order more. I would anticipate that 90% of the time they’re going to be right, and we wouldn’t have any reason to question it. Sometimes they know more than we do. For example, if there’s a local election where there’s a lot of interest, say a school referendum where there’s strong feelings on both sides, we may look at that and say ‘gee they ordered a lot,’ but our only concern is we never want to run out. So if a registrar refuses to tell us or such we would have the ability to have them order 100%. We hope that’s a rare instance. I think we’ll get cooperation from the registrars, because they want to do a good job too. I don’t think anybody would intentionally make a mistake like that.
On predecessor, former SOTS Susan Bysiewicz
Examiner: Do you think that your predecessor [former Connecticut Secretary of the State and now U.S. Senate candidate Sue Bysiewicz]—some of these changes might have been made in times past—do you think you took over an office that was in good shape as far as the elections process?
Denise: I think that elections are a funny area of the law. When everything is going right nobody notices it at all. Its only when things go wrong that it gets attention and I’m not sure anybody could have anticipated this. I’m not sure, given how much trouble I’ve had even, getting some of this through the legislature, imagine trying that if there hasn’t been a problem. I’m not sure if anyone would have listened. It’s difficult. Local registrars and local officials jealously guard their powers and this was not easy to make them understand. I would like to see us reform our entire election system, frankly. I don’t think there’s enough accountability in the system. And I think some of those weaknesses showed.
Examiner: What about early voting?
Denise: If we can manage to get the constitutional amendment passed, that would put it before the voters and they could decide what they want to do. I think early voting has promise. I mainly think we have to get more of the new technologies in place because there are so many of them now. I’ve been so impressed, I went down to the National Association of SOTS, they have an association, and I went to their first meeting, and I was just amazed by the kinds of technology that could save us money and make voting so much more efficient. I’m really concerned about long waits in line and that sort of thing which really damage our credibility I think. I think it’s one of the most important jobs that government does is run elections and it’s got to be more efficient and it’s got to speak more to the modern lifestyle, people are much more mobile, they move around more. I envision a statewide voter registration file, where in every polling place you’d have the whole state voter list electronically, you could scan with a little wand your name in and boom you go in and vote. I mean it would be so much easier. I think people would have a lot more confidence in the system if they saw that. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to look at.
New CT Humane Society Director & Former State Rep Annie Hornish
Examiner: I don’t know if you know that Annie Hornish [former State Representative] was named CT Humane Society director?
Denise: Oh Annie! [Obvious delight] Was she really? I know she’s so passionate about animal rights.
Examiner: Wayne Pacelle is the national director, he’s on a book tour, the book is called The Bond, and I saw both he and Annie at the Yale Bookstore a couple of weeks ago, the tour is awesome by the way.
Denise: Oh, she’s great! That’s nice to know, thanks!
Examiner: The Connecticut Presidential primary has been moved to April, what are the advantages to that?
The change to an April 24th, 2012 Presidential Primary
Denise: [The political parties provided incentives to move the primaries back with] chiefly more delegates. More delegates the later you put your primary. And you get additional delegates if you have the primary on the same day with three other states. So they are trying to encourage the bundling of common primaries and later in the year because everybody was frontloading their primaries. Rhode Island, now New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware [will have theirs all on the same day as CT in April] and one more I think now. Some are still voting. We’ll get more attention than we would have otherwise.
Examiner: I love comedy, so having the Republicans around will be fun. LOL.
Denise: LOL. They got quite a crew this year don’t they! Oh!
Examiner: Regarding business, and specifically small business, with a focus on job creation, what did the SOTS office accomplish this year, particularly legislatively?
The SOTS office, small business, jobs and the 2012 Assembly Session
Denise: As I said during my campaign I think the role this office can play is one of connecting people to resources. I heard over and over again at a job growth roundtable we held, about how difficult it is for the average person to see all these government agencies when they’re first starting a business. They have to contact the SOTS office to register their business, so we thought we could be a conduit in a good way and hopefully make it easy for people to intersect with us and we could send them off to get various resources should they need them. So this year we passed legislation to that end creating an e-business portal which will be an electronic portal into state government. And a bond issue which will enable us to upgrade our technology which is woefully out of date. Businesses still can’t register online, for example, which is ridiculous in this day and age. So we need to upgrade our technology. That’s going to make it so much easier for people when they confront this maze of paperwork that usually they have to fill out. We also passed legislation to require online filing of business annual reports, which will probably save us at least $250,000 a year just in mailing costs, not to mention that it will make things much easier for the consumers to be able to file their reports. We also passed legislation that will enable different kinds of corporate constructs that will enable different types of businesses so that there’s more than one way to register a company. It makes it much more flexible for the companies to register. Our new system will be able to accommodate all that so that we’ll be a state that’s recognized nationally as a state that’s good to do business with, and that’s the goal.
The 2012 Session overall, and Governor Malloy
Examiner: As a citizen taxpayer and not SOTS, would you tell me what you think about the General Assembly session just over and Governor Dan Malloy’s performance?
Denise: It was the most impossible situation, and given the circumstances I think he acquitted himself very well. He took on the hardest things there is. And that’s to raise taxes at a time when—whenever you raise taxes its difficult—but he articulated a vision that we’re all going to have to do something here. At the moment I’m not sure where this is all going to end up with the state employee unions and that was too bad…I think he’s gone out there and stated his case and he’s a gutsy guy.
Examiner: There is a primary for U.S. Senate next year (Democrats Sue Bysiewicz and U.S. Rep Chris Murphy are the major contenders), have you taken a position on that?
The 2012 U.S. Senate Race: Sue Bysiewicz or Chris Murphy?
Denise: I have endorsed Chris Murphy based on a long-standing relationship I’ve had with him. I was one of his early mentors, I remember door-knocking with Chris Murphy in Southington, he was just a kid, 20 years old, I think at the time. So based on that relationship, yeah, I’ve endorsed Chris.
Examiner: What will you be doing between now and the next General Assembly session?
Between now and January
Denise: I’ve already launched two task forces. One is on election performance. I want to follow up on some of the problems we identified. We’ve taken some steps to standardize things but I think there’s a lot more we could do. We met this morning and we’re going to look at new technologies in voting, early voting, online voting, online voter registration, and all these kinds of things that would be improvements to our system. That will probably continue for about six months and we’ll probably have some legislative initiatives next session on that. And the other group I’ve convened is called the “Civics Health Index.” I’m very interested in what I’m calling a crisis in civic engagement. I think a lot of people are very concerned about the state of our civic institutions of all kinds. Where are the next generation of voters going to come from? So how do we get young people involved? How do we keep our democracy healthy? A very interesting group has convened around this issue. They will issue a report and have some recommendations on some action to take. We’ve got about 40 people on this group. We’ve gotten some terrific feedback. We’ve really tapped in to something people are very concerned about. The power of politics, the lack of voter participation and civic engagement of all kinds is really bothering people so I hope we can start a really positive conversation on that.
Examiner: You’ve made many appearances and spoken out on immigration since taking office.
Denise: People who have just become citizens are the ones that need to be brought in. They are new citizens, they are passionate about being citizens and I think it’s a great place to articulate what American democracy is all about so we’re having voter registration tables at these citizenship ceremonies which are really wonderful. People are so excited to be American citizens, some of them have waited a long time. That’s a big thing. I did support the in-state tuition bill for children of immigrants. Connecticut has to be the land of opportunity for everyone. So I’m very excited about that as well.
Examiner: I will say that I can’t think of how you could have accomplished much more this session.
Denise: Well, thank you. I hit the ground raring to go.
Examiner: Except the constitutional amendment it looks like everything got through.
Bipartisanship, improving the tone of civics and politics
Denise: That’s right, including some stuff that had been backed up for years. We even made the simplest regulatory changes. We still had the lever machine language in the statutes. A lot of it was bipartisan. It really was. In the Senate, [28thDistrict, Republican Minority Leader] John McKinney stood up on the floor and praised me for working with him on these issues and I think that’s the greatest thing yet. We’ve all got to learn to do that again.
Examiner: Getting bipartisan support on elections issues of all matters, is promising I think.
Denise: You know you just have to talk to people. You have to come to agreement. The thing in Washington is inexcusable. It’s all about the tone.
Examiner: It’s good to see what’s happened from your office in this Assembly session.
Denise: Well, thank you. I’m feeling good about it.