Aakshi Chaba

Marcello Rossi ’21 came to City Hall twice on Nov. 6 hoping to register to vote using Connecticut’s Election Day Registration.

After seeing long lines as early as 11 a.m., he decided to attend a class and return later. When he entered the line again at 4 p.m., he was greeted by a New Haven official, who told him that it was unlikely he would be able to vote before the 8 p.m. registration deadline, given the four-hour-long waiting times. At this point, Rossi left City Hall, deciding that his chances of making it to the front were “low.”

But Rossi was not the only one to face these challenges. While more than 700 voters used Connecticut’s same day registration program to register to vote in New Haven’s City Hall, hundreds of others were unable to register. They were either discouraged by the length of the lines or told at the registration site that they would not have enough time to register before the 8 p.m. deadline.

In the aftermath of the midterms, election processes across the country have come under intense scrutiny. Hotly contested gubernatorial races in both Georgia and Florida led to critics labeling inefficient and outdated voting policies as forms of ideologically motivated voter suppression. In particular, the Georgia governor election grabbed the national spotlight as Republican governor-elect Brian Kemp simultaneously ran as a candidate and oversaw the state’s elections as Georgia Secretary of State.

Meanwhile, Connecticut, one of the country’s bluest states, faced its own host of issues as many residents in New Haven, as well as Mansfield, faced hours-long wait times like Rossi’s — indicating inefficiencies in the implementation of the state’s Election Day Registration law. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont SOM ’80 narrowly beat out Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski to win this year’s governor’s race.

Now, Yale students and city residents alike are demanding changes to the process from the city’s legislators.

Connecticut laws and election day registration

The Connecticut legislature passed a law implementing Election Day Registration in late 2012 and first used the process in the 2014 midterm elections. Meant to encourage voting, the program has instead resulted in persistent inefficiencies each election cycle. During this year’s midterms in particular, long lines for potential voters using Election Day Registration generated significant chaos and controversy.

According to Laurence Grotheer, a spokesman for Mayor Toni Harp, one major issue surrounding the state’s Election Day Registration is that state law only allows each municipality one location for same-day voter registration. In New Haven, City Hall was the only location at which voters could register to vote on Nov. 6.

“The Mayor hopes the General Assembly might revisit the law that creates [Election Day Registration] and perhaps amend it to allow population centers multiple sites for [Election Day Registration],” Grotheer told the News.

Ward 18 Alder Salvatore DeCola said that they had “already made a lot of improvements” since the 2016 presidential elections, when the process also came under scrutiny. These changes included splitting high voting wards alphabetically to make the voting process more efficient and separating the rooms designated for registration and voting in City Hall on election day. In 2016, both processes occurred in the same room.

This year, registration took place in three rooms in City Hall, whereas voters cast their ballots in the larger Aldermanic Chamber.

But DeCola noted that inadequate staffing at City Hall — only two officials were working to register hundreds of voters for the majority of the day — led to some of the issues that same-day registrants faced on Nov. 6.

“They had over 700 people — that’s a lot of people,” DeCola told the News. “We need more people to register people. And they didn’t have enough people registering people.”

Aaron Goode, co-founder of New Haven Votes — a local nonpartisan effort to encourage voting and civic participation – noted that implementing more options for early voting in Connecticut could also “take pressure off” city officials on election day.

Currently, Connecticut state law outlines that residents must vote on election day unless they fall into certain categories, such as active military service members. Early voting laws were on the Connecticut ballot twice in history — most recently in 2014 when the measure failed by 43,896 votes, even though New Haven residents approved the referendum.

A history of inconvenience

This year’s midterms, however, were not the the first election in which New Haven faced technical challenges. In both the 2014 midterm elections and 2016 presidential elections, the Elm City was unable to keep up with the number of same day registrants as officials tried to manage staff shortages and long lines — two crucial components of this year’s chaos.

According to Goode, close to 200 people were turned away due to long lines at 8 p.m. in 2014’s midterm elections, the first year in which  Election Day Registration was implemented in Connecticut. Rosenberg attributed long lines in 2014 to staffing problems.

“It’s a staffing issue,” Rosenberg said. “If you devote enough resources to it, it will be successful. But if you don’t devote enough resources to it, you’ll have really long lines and confusion.”

Goode said that similar issues plagued New Haven voters in the 2016 elections. In addition to long lines for same-day voter registration, Goode told the News, voters went to the wrong polling places, and voting lines in some districts — such as Ward 7 — were three hours long.

New Haven’s City Services and Environmental Policy Committee held a public hearing in December 2016 to discuss residents’ concerns and resolve the issues that arose on election day that year.

“There were a lot of follow-up meetings … and a number of recommendations emerged from [the meeting], about having better signage at the polls, better communication and more accurate up-to-date information on the city’s website to sort of prevent some of these problems from happening in the first place,” Goode said. “Some of those were adopted, but most of them were never adopted.”

Fish Stark ’17, who voted in New Haven for the 2016 presidential elections, told the News in an email that that while he did not use same-day voter registration, lines were long and “the city just as unprepared” as this year.

For some, this year was no different. In a New Haven Independent column, Yale Law School lecturer Linda Greenhouse LAW ’78 expressed disappointment with New Haven’s voting process. Citing bad signage and “incompetence” of poll workers, she concluded that something is “fundamentally wrong” with the way the Elm City conducts elections.

Chaos on Election Day

On election day, polls in the Nutmeg State were open for 14 hours — from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

According to Gabe Rosenberg, a spokesman for Secretary of State Denise Merrill, as long as voters are in line by 8 p.m., they are allowed to vote. However, Rosenberg added, Connecticut law specifies that potential voters “have to be registered to vote by 8 p.m.,” which means that the process of registration must be complete by 8 p.m. in order for a resident to cast their ballot.

By 4 p.m. on Nov. 6, city officials placed a sign near the entrance of the registration area informing arriving voters that there was “no guarantee [they would] be able to vote” due to the four-hour-long waiting time. As a result, many potential voters left.

Rosenberg said that the registrars called Merrill’s office at around 6:30 p.m. to notify her of concerns about long lines. The office’s legal counsel then advised election officials to separate the remaining voters in line into two groups: first-time voters in Connecticut and those who had previously registered in another town. Between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., approximately 100 first time voters were then allowed to cast their ballots after filling out registration forms and swearing en masse that they had never previously voted in the state.

Kevin Arnold, New Haven’s elections moderator, told the News that as a result, while most voters in line at 8 p.m. were vetted and allowed to vote, some were not processed into the secretary of state’s database — which is usually the final step in the registration process. Arnold noted that approximately 20 voters were turned away at the deadline.

Harold Ekeh ’19, president of Yale’s chapter of Every Vote Counts, a nationwide nonpartisan group that encourages civil engagement on college campuses, said that it was “disappointing” to have people turned away at City Hall, considering that the Yale Votes coalition and the University administration had publicized the option of same-day registration in campuswide emails.

At around 6 p.m. on election day in New Haven, a group of roughly 30 Law School students, including Daniel Hornung LAW ’20, came to City Hall after hearing about the chaos surrounding the long lines. According to Hornung, city officials eventually took four volunteers to aid the registration process after they were able to find four more computers.

Hornung noted U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-New Haven, was also at City Hall to try and ensure that everyone would be able to vote.

In a series of tweets between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on election day, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski denounced the decision of allowing some first-time voters to cast their ballots without processing their registrations.

He called the process of allowing votes without processing voters’ registration “illegal” and asked for the votes to be counted separately, citing a document released by the Secretary of State stating that registration must be completed before 8 p.m.

Controversy after polls close

At around the 8 p.m. voting deadline, the Republican hopeful filed an injunction at Hartford’s Superior Court, asking for the ballots cast between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. to be separated from the rest and individually examined.

“The same day registration is allowed before 8 p.m., but not after,” Stefanowski tweeted on Tuesday. “Unlike the polls, you have to be completed before 8 p.m., not just in line. They then must be processed BEFORE they can vote.”

Late on Tuesday night, Superior Court Judge Cesar A. Chavez responded, setting a hearing for 10 a.m. on Nov. 9 after ordering some of the ballots cast by same-day registration voters to be secured for potential additional review.

Still, these inefficiencies and the question of the legality of the last-minute ballots contributed to a large delay in results for the Connecticut gubernatorial race.

The race between Stefanowski and Lamont was a toss-up from the start. Still, the results for the gubernatorial election were expected to be released by 11 p.m. on the  night of the election, three hours after voting ended. Instead, Lamont was only declared the winner at 9 a.m. the next morning, and New Haven’s complete tally, including absentee ballots, was not published until that Friday morning — more than 48 hours after it was intended to be released.

According to the Associated Press, Lamont received 27, 900 votes in the Elm City in comparison to Stefanowski’s 4,622, accounting for more than half of the total 40,177 votes that separated the two candidates.

Stefanowski, who conceded to Lamont on Wednesday morning, withdrew the lawsuit he filed on Tuesday night as all of the votes were tallied.

Corporation Counsel John Rose, Jr. — the city’s chief legal counsel — said that he would work with the Registrar to ensure that the process is smoother in the future.

“To the extent reasonably within the Corporation Counsel’s purview, I will work with the Registrar to ensure that appropriate steps are taken and policies are in place to better effect a response to the press of Same Day Registration/Voting,” Rose told the News in an email.

New Haven’s Democratic Registrar for Voters, Shannel Evans, was not available to respond to multiple requests for comment. The Republican Registrar, Delores Knight, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The same-day voter registration drama was not the only issue that plagued the Elm City in this year’s midterms. Heavy rain throughout Tuesday also led to malfunctioning ballot machines and wet ballots. According to Rosenberg, the combination of an election with high voter turnout and heavy rain led to more chaos than usual.

“People were coming in dripping wet, and when they were filling out their ballots, their ballots were getting wet,” Rosenberg said. “So eventually, the wet ballots gum up the optical scanner machines, and so the towns that had that problem brought in their back up machines, which they always have. But it wasn’t a problem with the machine, it was a problem with the ballots.”

Rosenberg said that the machines sorted the wet ballots into an auxiliary bin on the side of the machine. Election officials then counted those ballots by hand at the end of the night.

Improving the Process

State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, told the News that he hopes to work on more statewide voter reforms in this upcoming year, specifically mentioning early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and voting rights for incarcerated people.

According to Lemar, in order to implement early voting processes for elections, a constitutional amendment — which would need a statewide referendum —  is required. If approved in the General Assembly this year, early voting would be on the ballot for a third time in 2020.

On Nov. 8 — two days after the election — Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94 submitted a resolution to the Board of Alders calling for a public hearing to discuss voting issues, including the assignment of polling places, the possibility of implementing practices to “alleviate unnecessary voter confusion” and the process of Election Day Registration.

State law requires that residents vote in the district in which they reside. As state districts are different from wards — which are each represented by a New Haven alder — residents in certain aldermanic districts often have to vote at different polling stations, creating confusion on election day. According to Roth, residents of her ward were sent to four different voting locations.

“Having multiple and ever-changing polling locations causes confusion and risks voters going to the wrong location and then ultimately not voting,” Roth told the News. “I want to explore if people can be assigned to vote in the same polling location for every election, with separate lines to accommodate the different ballots.”

Rosenberg said that responsibility for long lines lies with municipalities themselves.

He said that the the office of the Secretary of State had informed the registrars to expect a “presidential year turnout” when the officials were ordering their ballots. He added that considering college students benefit from Election Day Registration “the most often,” it is not hard to predict that university towns such as New Haven and Mansfield — home of the University of Connecticut —  would see high demand for same-day registration.

“[Election Day Registration] can go very smoothly if adequate resources are put in place for it,” Rosenberg told the News. “I don’t think that was the case on Election Day.”

Aakshi Chaba | aakshi.chaba@yale.edu