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We Must Run Elections Like Every Voter will Vote

Did the City of Hartford’s Registrar of Voters office handle Election Day the best it could under the circumstances?
Yes, according to Working Families Party registrar of voters Urania Petit, who is the only respectable and trustworthy figure in that office. I am going to have to take her word, because I know she works hard to educate voters and registrar people to vote. Although I still feel like I saw a poorly executed election on Tuesday night.
“People don’t pay attention to their voting status,” an exhausted Petit said Wednesday morning (who, incidentally, won another four years). “When do people have to take ownership of something so powerful as their voice?” She wondered.
On Election Day, the Democratic Party asked me as an attorney to monitor a polling place. As assigned, I went to Parker Memorial Community Center on North Main Street. I walked in and it was freezing. One of the poll workers complained the bathroom was the only warm spot at Parker.
My contact from the Democratic Party warned me voters at Parker encountered long lines and a lack of provisional ballots. Also, people who thought they were registered to vote were told they weren’t.
Within five minutes of arriving, I saw chaos. I met a Puerto Rican couple with a child not three years old who were leaving. I asked what was up. They told me they knew they were registered, but were denied. They were told to go to City Hall if they wanted to vote.
But they knew they were registered. They were not offered provisional ballots. I ushered the couple to the moderator, and asked what was going on. I went into the polling place. I was made to understand that this was not appropriate.
Later on Election Night, I talked to another lawyer doing the same monitoring as me elsewhere in Hartford who was allowed into the voting area.
The moderator, Nadine, who I believe is a City Hall employee, was in over her head. She did not like me.
Why? Because I demanded that these two people get the opportunity to vote. When I watched what was happening, it became clear this problem was bigger than Nadine.
People who finished voting did not know where to drop their ballots off. Another woman with a blank ballot could not figure out how to vote. I saw her go talk to a woman who was voting for help. The integrity of the process seemed in question.
One woman complained the poll workers lost her ID card. Many had the same problem of being registered but told they were not.
I saw 25 or so people sitting in the voting area at Parker waiting for clearance to vote. People told me they were waiting more than an hour. Nadine told me no one waited for more than hour. Okay. The people are lying.
The Registrar of Voters office lists people who have not voted in four years as “inactive.” There were at least 10,000 people in this category, Petit said. The polling places did not have the inactive lists.
So the moderator and helpers at the polling places had to call City Hall to establish if this person was inactive and could be restored. There were not enough people at City Hall to answer the phones.
Moderators across the city, then, began sending droves of people to City Hall. I drove one of the would-be voters from Parker down to City Hall so I could see the problem myself.
In City Hall, the line of voters turned away from polling places stretched from the City Clerk’s office all the way to the front doors on Main Street, down the stairs, then all the way to back door on Prospect Street. I spoke to voters who waited for more than three hours. And that was only at 6:30 pm.
I saw Sal Bramante running around like a chicken with his head cut off. Poor Town Clerk John Bazzano and his crew worked from six in the morning to late in the night without rest to pick up some of the slack.
The people who stood in that line understood it was their fault, Petit said either because they didn’t register sooner (another 10,000 or so), or something sneaky like they registered their cars in another town (to avoid high car insurance) and the Department of Motor Vehicles sent a strike list to the Registrar.
Election day registration – an effort by the government to accommodate citizens who fail to update their status – next year and in the coming presidential years will only be more chaos like Tuesday, Petit said.
President Obama said we need to fix our voting problems. His victory speech early Wednesday morning, focused on the long lines. We look like a developing democracy, not the modern world’s first republic.
The Secretary of State’s office, under the Help America Vote Act, has to keep a database of all registered voters in the state. Why not create a computer network where every polling place in Connecticut has the ability to access that database? That would help deal with 20,000 unanticipated voters.
Petit said that the registrar plans the current election based on the last one. That has to change. We have to plan an election like every eligible voter is going to vote.
Can we register people by their birthdays or a special voter registration number, and once they prove their address, they can vote in that polling place? There has to be a better way, because clearly, people see the importance of their vote, even if only once every four years.
Late Tuesday night, even after networks called the election for Obama, Petit said people were still in line and still wanted to vote anyways.
Last week, I wrote a column about our inability and lack of capacity to run decent elections. Election expert Luther Weeks told me that Connecticut had sufficient capacity. What I saw in Hartford Tuesday night was an appalling lack of capacity and competency.
After inspecting City Hall, and understanding that I could do no good by trying to talk to an obviously overextended but trying very hard John Bazzano, I returned to Parker Memorial.
There, officer DeJesus, badge number 868, told me I was not allowed back in the polling place. He then told me I was not allowed to speak to anyone coming or going. Then he said I needed to be outside. I don’t argue with cops with guns, especially ones who don’t think and just take orders.
So I left. But I left knowing that at least two people who Nadine and her crew turned away got to vote because of my advocacy. I watched the Puerto Rican couple have their registration restored, and they both shook my hand as they left, thanking me.
It felt good, and I can take some solace in that. Yet I sit here certain that dozens of other people who were turned away at Parker and other polling places across the city were wronged and denied their vote by untrained poll workers.
Voter education is the answer, Petit said. Of course, but I think government has some accountability for this structural situation. It frustrated me to hear Secretary of State Denise Merrill on the radio last night say “We bend over backwards” to help people vote.
It shouldn’t seem like a chore. The government is not doing us a favor by “letting us” vote. We are exercising a fundamental right. Those administering that right need to remember this.

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