Aakshi Chaba

Hundreds of students and New Haveners spent hours waiting in line to register to vote at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, forcing many potential voters to either give up on registration or be turned away, stirring up controversy around last-minute registration.

Connecticut implemented laws allowing for Election Day voter registration in 2014. Polls were open in the state from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, and according to the Office of Secretary of State Denise Merrill, voters “in line at the polls” at the 8 p.m. deadline had to be allowed to vote. However, the registration process at City Hall was slightly different — potential voters had to complete registration before 8 p.m. in order to vote.

By 4 p.m., city officials had put up a sign outside the waiting area informing arriving voters that there was “no guarantee [they] will be able to vote” due to a wait time of approximately four hours. The slow registration process — in part caused by the fact that only two officials were working to register the hundreds of voters — led to many leaving after seeing the long lines. Some were still waiting to register at 8 p.m., the registration deadline. According to New Haven moderator Kevin Arnold, many of those voters, though not entered into the secretary of the state’s database, were vetted and allowed to vote. About 20 people were turned away.

“Every registered voter currently in line at 8pm is allowed to vote,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski said in a tweet at 5 p.m. “The law is clear. If you are registered and in line – vote! If you are not registered before 8pm – you can’t vote.”

In a series of tweets between 4 and 6 p.m., Stefanowski said that it was “illegal” to allow people to vote after 8 p.m. without processing them, demanding that these ballots be separated to “keep the integrity of our election.” Stefanowski also filed an injunction at Hartford’s Superior Court to “separate ballots, not disqualify them.”

Late Tuesday night, Superior Court Judge Cesar A. Noble ordered some of the ballots cast by same-day registration voters in New Haven and Mansfield — where similar situations unfolded — to be secured for a potential review. On Friday morning, Noble will hold a hearing to determine whether these ballots — which, according to the Hartford Courant, numbered approximately between 600 and 800 — need to be individually reviewed.

The line to register at City Hall began to lengthen at around noon. Jordan Cozby ’20, co-founder of the Yale Votes coalition and president of the Yale College Democrats, described the voter registration process as “atrocious.”

“I’m from Alabama where voter suppression is the norm. You’d expect better from Connecticut,” Cozby said. “I think at this point, we just want to make sure that [voters] should stay in line and not leave.”

The registration process consisted of three steps. According to several voters interviewed, the first two parts of the process — verifying one’s residency status in New Haven and filling in a registration form — were relatively short. The third step of having their information entered into the database, however, took much longer.

All 17 people interviewed by the News had spent at least an hour in line, with the majority waiting for three hours or more.

Armando Herreria ’20 was in line between 3:30 and 8:30 p.m. and expressed frustration at the conduct of city officials, who Herrería said “actively discouraged” potential voters.

According to Herreria, Albert Lucas ’90, director of legislative services at New Haven’s Board of Alders, posted the signs about long waiting times at the entry of the registration area at approximately 3:45 p.m.

“Wait time is approximately 4 hours,” read the signs. “Polls close at 8:00 pm. Please consider no guarantee you will be able to vote, if you arrive after 4:00 pm.”

Herreria also posted about City Hall workers turning away voters on the popular Facebook page Overheard at Yale. As of 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the post had 250 likes and had been shared four times.

Herreria said that the Yale Dems and Yale Votes led attempts to “counteract blatant voter suppression” by distributing food and water to those waiting in lines, even as “hundreds … were discouraged from waiting in line.” Herreria added that at 5:15 p.m., he reported the matter to the nonpartisan Election Protection coalition, which dispatched volunteer lawyers in response.

At around 5 p.m., a group of Yale Law School students started distributing food to those waiting to register. Vinay Nayak LAW ’19, one of the students handing out doughnuts, said the fact that people had to stand in line for hours to vote was “really sad.” Nayak added that citizens have an “obligation” to do anything they can to make the process easier.

At the same time, Democratic Registrar of Voters Shannel Evans also started registering voters, bringing the total number of election workers doing so at the site to three. Evans was unable to respond to request for comment.

An hour later, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-New Haven, arrived at City Hall to help speed up the registration issue. She was joined by a group of students from Yale Law School and “every volunteer attorney” available at Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office, according to a quote from Merrill’s spokesman, Gabe Rosenberg, to the New Haven Independent.

According to Rosenberg, as the registration deadline loomed closer, attorneys from Merrill’s office advised election workers to divide waiting voters into two groups — those who had been previously registered in Connecticut and first-time voters in the state. At around 7:30 p.m., first-time voters began to cast their ballots after filling out registration forms and swearing en-masse that they had never voted in Connecticut before. Rosenberg added that to be cautious, ballots from that special group were separated from the rest of the ballots in case questions arose afterwards.

Dan Barrett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, released a press statement criticizing the slow process, calling the long lines a “completely avoidable situation.”

“New Haven’s repeated failure to staff its polling places with enough workers to ensure people’s rights to vote is practically inviting a lawsuit,” Barrett said. “The 8 p.m. cutoff imposed today in New Haven is artificial, does not carry the weight of the law, and is based on a non-binding advisory opinion from the Secretary of the State’s office, not the letter of the law.”

Rhea Christmas LAW ’21 and Anna Wherry LAW ’21, both near the end of the line at 5 p.m., said that they had been at City Hall for 3.5 hours. According to Christmas, at around 4 p.m., city officials started telling arriving voters that they would not have enough time to vote.

“[The lines] are making it impossible for all the people who were going to come vote today for such a big election to register,” Christmas said. “We’re fortunate because we’re students, but not everyone can wait for five hours.”

Other voters also noted that the long lines were turning voters away. Avery Arena ’21, who spent almost four hours waiting to register, said that she’d “seen a lot of people come in, see the line and leave.” Arena added that the situation was “terrible,” especially considering that many Yale students had already experienced issues while requesting absentee ballots in the days leading up to the elections.

During the past few weeks, Yale’s Campus Mail Service has been returning students’ absentee ballots back to the sender if the students sent their ballots to their residential colleges instead of to a P.O. box, which students must rent to receive mail on campus. After multiple students contacted University administration about their missing ballots, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the News that the University was working to resolve the issue by delivering absentee ballots to students who do not have a P.O. box.

Hayley McClintock GRD ’24 was near the start of the line at 5 p.m. and had already been waiting for 1.5 hours when she spoke to the News. McClintock said she was surprised that only two workers were registering the voters, adding that she was concerned that she would be unable to register before the polls closed.

While New Haven resident Sarah Hill had also been waiting in line for multiple hours, she said she was “excited” that such a large number of people were waiting to register, describing the turnout as “inspiring.”

Yale student Ali Futter ’19 was also more positive about the line, noting that there was a sense of unity in the building.

“One thing that’s been very uplifting is that there was an impromptu yoga class while we were in line, and it was really unifying to see everybody participate,” Futter said.

New Haven has also faced challenges with same-day voter registration in the 2014 and 2016 election. In both the presidential election and the last midterm election, registration was held in the same space at City Hall. According to the Hartford Courant, about 100 voters were turned away at the 8 p.m. registration deadline in the 2014 midterm elections and the registration site was also understaffed in the 2016 presidential elections.

Aakshi Chaba | aakshi.chaba@yale.edu