Sharon Ferrucci and Delores Knight scrambled to field four-to-six-person teams to spend 16 hours at 40 different New Haven polling locations Tuesday—so the teams can wait around all day to help as few as two voters.
Ferrucci and Knight (pictured), the city’s Democratic and Republican registrars of voters, can think of better ways to spend their time and the taxpayers’ money.
But under state law they have no choice. For the state Republican gubernatorial primary taking place from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, which pits Tom Foley against John McKinney, New Haven must field the teams to check voters’ names and process balloting at 40 different voting districts in town—the city’s 30 municipal wards, some of them carved into two or three separate mini-districts because they contain different slices of state senatorial and representative districts. (Click here to see where to vote on Tuesday, and the names of all candidates on the ballot, which includes a lieutenant governor and a comptroller race. Call the registrars at (203) 946-8035 with any questions.)
For all those districts, New Haven has precious few registered Republicans: 2,424 compared to 48,166 Democrats, 18,023 unaffiliated voters, and 370 members of minor parties, according to the most recent count.
And most of those registered Republicans don’t even vote in primaries. In the most recent Republican primary, in April 2012, just 451 of them, or 19 percent, showed up at the polls citywide.
And that was a primary for U.S. president.
“We call certain places ‘The Twilight Zone,’” Ferrucci joked as her office kicked into gear.
Only two Republicans showed up all day to vote in Newhallville’s Ward 20 in the 2012 primary. A total of three voters showed up all day in the Hill’s Ward 4—where the city must set up not one, but two polling stations with two sets of workers under state law. Wards in half the city (stations in the Hill, Dwight, downtown, Fair Haven, Dixwell, Newhallville, West Hills & West Rock) saw fewer than 10 voters arrive over the course of the 14 hours. Wild turkeys outnumbered humans at the polls at the Clarence Rogers School, where the first voter didn’t show up until 10:25 a.m. and five showed up all day and night, up from a grand total of one in the previous primary. (Click here for a moment-by-moment account of how poll workers spent their time that day. Poll worker Cynthia N. Rogers is pictured getting the spot ready for voters.)
The reason for the requirement: State law requires that municipalities have the same polling places for primaries that they have for general elections. So people know to go the same spot. Efforts have failed at the state legislature to amend the law to allow for consolidating districts in expected anemic-turnout primaries.
A bill to allow cities to consolidate districts for low-turnout primaries—as long as all candidates agree—has been debated at the legislature the past few years but never became law. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said her office supported various versions of the bill, which originated with the state registrars of voters association. In one case supporters tried to pass it by limiting it to towns of over 25,000 people, but that backfired when some suburban legislators called it discriminatory, she said. Some urban legislators worried that local registrars loyal to one party faction or other might make unfair decisions about which polls to close. Merrill said she doesn’t know if there’s enough support to work on trying to pass a version of it again this coming year.
“It’s certainly worth looking at again, especially in these cases where you have a dramatic dearth of voters,” the expected incoming president of the State Senate, New Haven’s Martin Looney, said Friday. He said in the past some legislators worried that some primary candidates might use such a new rule against opponents in their campaigns.
Meanwhile, Ferrucci and Knight broke down the added costs for New Haven to field 40 polling-district teams on Tuesday (including two separate teams at some locations) on top of their usual staff salary and overtime expenses as well as the hiring of a citywide moderator:
• 40 site moderators at $375 apiece, which totals $15,000.
• A minimum of 20 assistant registrars at $160 apiece, totaling at least $3,200. (They weren’t sure how many they’d end up with.)
• 40 pairs of official checkers, at $150 per checker (or $300 per pair): $12,000.
• 40 ballot checkers at $145 apiece: $5,800.
• Around 25 machine tabulators at $135 apiece (whose tasks can be shared at some particularly quiet spots): $3,375.
That comes to at least $39,375, a minimum, based on how many people Ferrucci and Knight can line up for the slots. Some of the assistant registrar and tabulator duties can be shared at particularly quiet polls, they said.
The registrars estimated that having 10 or 15 polling spots for a Republican primary could do the trick, with spots reasonably close to voters’ homes and without wasting so much money on time staffing desert voting-islands. (GOP Town Chairman Rick Elser has proposed having one citywide polling spot downtown, with people offered free rides if needed.)
On the other hand, it’s a challenge recruiting and then training enough people to staff the polls and work the grueling shifts for every election. (The teams need to show up at 5 a.m. and stay until 9 p.m.) So the registrars said they see a silver lining in Tuesday’s costly exercise: Getting a crew trained and ready for November, when tens of thousands of voters are expected for the main event.