How Not To Conduct Elections

Paul Bass Photo(Opinion) When my husband and I moved to New Haven in 2010, one of the first things we did was register to vote. We assumed that voting in New Haven would be the same pleasant, even rewarding experience it had been for the 30 years we lived in Montgomery County, the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Two or three weeks before each election, a sample ballot would arrive in the mail from the county Board of Elections, listing all the candidates and any ballot measures. Polling places were well marked, with reminders to vote posted in visible places. Voters were welcomed by friendly and efficient poll workers. Clearly, the franchise was something our government not only facilitated but celebrated.

Imagine our surprise when none of those things proved to be true in New Haven.

Anticipating our first election, a mayoral primary, we waited in vain for a sample ballot. We did each receive a card informing us that our polling place was the New Haven Hall of Records, a short walk from our apartment.

Arriving at the Orange Street address around eight o’clock in the morning, we were surprised to see no sign indicating that we had come to the right place. We walked up the front steps and found the door locked, without a sign of human habitation.

We knocked for some minutes, finally rousing a man who asked us through the closed glass door what we wanted. To vote, we said. Go down to the basement, he said, pointing to a flight of outdoor stairs leading to the bottom of the building.

Again, there was no sign validating that this was the place to go. We entered and wound our way along a darkened corridor, which finally led us to a room with voting booths and a few poll workers standing around.

After casting our ballots, we emerged unnerved, wondering what had just taken place. Was this some kind of soft voter suppression?

We saw soon enough that what we had experienced was part of a pattern.

When our polling place was changed to the main library, facing the Green on Elm Street, we again saw no sign confirming that this was a place to vote. We walked up the front library steps, only to find that the building was not yet open. Almost by chance, we noticed a small sign on the Temple Street side, pointing to a side entrance to the library’s lower level. There was no one greeting voters inside the door. Poll workers radiated incompetence. The trouble they had finding names on the voter list could be explained only by unfamiliarity with the alphabet.

One once demanded that I show government ID, which Connecticut law does not require. Consequently, I refused on principle to show anything beyond the postcard listing my polling place. A supervisor had to intervene to tell the poll worker that I was right.

I mention these incidents in some detail because the meltdown that occurred on the day of the midterm election, well chronicled by the Independent, should not be seen as atypical or even, at this point, surprising. Something is fundamentally wrong with the way New Haven conducts elections.

I say this with some authority because back in Montgomery County, Maryland, I responded to a call for volunteers and took the necessary training to be an election judge. I was assigned to a polling place where many new citizens and first-time voters cast their ballots. My job and that of my fellow judges – equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats – was to greet voters, help them through the process, and try to resolve any problems that came up, including dispensing provisional ballots to voters whose qualification to vote at that location was questionable for some reason.

We were on our feet for most of 16 hours, but we worked diligently in our common mission and ended the long day tired but deeply satisfied that we had played a part in something important.

New Haven’s voters should not have to settle for anything less. New Haven’s election officials should visit and learn from jurisdictions that know how to run elections. Elections are not random or unexpected events. They are marked on the calendar years ahead. If a city can’t manage to run an election, how can its residents expect it to be able handle the unexpected events of everyday urban life? This isn’t about partisanship. It’s about citizenship in its most basic form, and it’s on the basics that New Haven is failing its residents.

Linda Greenhouse teaches at Yale Law School and writes a twice-monthly op-ed column for the New York Times as a contributing opinion writer.

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posted by: Paul Wessel on November 14, 2018  4:21pm

Thank you, Linda Greenhouse. C’mon, New Haven!  We can do better than this.

posted by: robn on November 14, 2018  4:32pm

A single polling place near ones residence for all elections (not by gerrymandered wards).
Simple same day registration.
Always paper trail ballot system with clear graphics
A “none of the above” option on ballots.
Open primaries.
One slot for each candidate.

posted by: 1644 on November 14, 2018  4:47pm

One need not go to Maryland for well-run elections.  Just get beyond the city line, and you will find well marked and manned polling stations (although we have never incurred the expense of mailing ballots when they are posted on-line and, often, in the newspapers).

posted by: Gary Stewart on November 14, 2018  5:42pm

The sorry situation described here is not the same everywhere in N.H. In my former ward-#24, the Alder and the Dem. Ward Co- Chairs are always out there for voters , there are signs , etc. Whatever ward this happened in needs to have a new Alder & Co- Chairs. registered Dems can make that happen.

posted by: Noteworthy on November 14, 2018  10:35pm

Amen Sister Notes:

1. The election debacle is disgrace but it is also emblematic of New Haven city government.

2. It is a cesspool of incompetence and even less care or concern to do things differently.

3. Evidence? How much time do you have? BOE - budget deficits for years and the largest one is this year and growing; test scores in the toilet; more graduating but with an education that leaves them unprepared for life or college. City budget - three years of deficits - and still the mayor and her underlings jet around the country, stay in fancy hotels and feast at taxpayer expense in town or out of it. Look at the 3 minute rule on public testimony - and then the votes by the BOA members as if not one of us invested our time and money in coming down to speak with them. When was the last time the Board of Elections tried to educate voters? Did a voter drive? Changed its behavior to be consumer friendly?

4. “It’s about citizenship in its most basic form, and it’s on the basics that New Haven is failing its residents.” Amen.

posted by: BlueDogMom on November 15, 2018  6:33am

Since New Haven is a one party town with Democrats running everything, what could you possibly be suggesting by saying you suspected voter suppression? So if it isn’t a party agenda, I guess it must be just the saddest example of ineptitude. I can garentee the handful of Republicans in New Haven aren’t able to do anything to either fix it or confound the situation.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on November 15, 2018  7:44am

I voted at 200 Orange Street this year and my experience was very different than Greenhouse’s experience in 2010. There were plenty of “vote here” signs and the election workers were courteous. Not that this takes away from the meltdown in Election Day registration or not having a plan to deal with machine breakdowns.

Robn, your last three suggestions would require a change in state law (an open primaries bill will probably be considered next session). Limiting candidates to one line on the ballot would preclude cross-endorsements, e.g., the Working Families Party could not endorse a Democratic candidate. Third parties cross-endorse for strategic reasons and eliminating their ability to do so would limit their ability to affect public policy.

posted by: 1644 on November 15, 2018  7:44am

Perhaps Fasano, as well as Elicker, will run for mayor.  Do you have to be a resident to be mayor?  At this point, I am thinking a tree would do a better job than Harp and her crew.  At least a tree wouldn’t waste tax money on coffee, lunch, and extravagant travel.
https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2018/11/14/frac-meeting-heats-up/

posted by: JCFremont on November 15, 2018  8:13am

Unnerved is living in the middle of a natural disaster or having a gun shoved in your face, but I guess we all have different levels of tolerance. Problems like last Thursday happen every Presidential election and perhaps for governor. The rest of the time the state has low turnout because there is no competition. Now if this city did have competitive races New Haven’s Ruling Party would have to up its game and go for some Broward Party Corruption style games. My Ballot was placed in a box rather than be scanned because either the extension chord didn’t reach the outlet or no one checked if the scanner actually worked sometime before six a.m November 6th 2018.

posted by: beaverhills on November 15, 2018  9:10am

I have lived in New Haven for 4 years and had easy experiences every time I voted, once in Edgewood and subsequently at Hillhouse. I’ve also passed by the main library on election day on multiple occasions and seen lots of signs/people pointing to the program room entrance (which seems to me the logical place for polling. Maybe we need to be getting to the library more so folks are familiar with it.)

What I would love to see is CT embrace early voting like so many states are. There was never a line when I voted in Arizona because most people had sent in their ballots ahead of time.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on November 15, 2018  9:36am

The system will never change if we keep participating in it the way it is. It needs retooling. People are just chasing their tails.It’s time to get rid of the two-party system.

posted by: Brewski on November 15, 2018  12:12pm

” Poll workers radiated incompetence. The trouble they had finding names on the voter list could be explained only by unfamiliarity with the alphabet.”

I don’t disagree that New Haven can do better, but there’s no need to be condescending to the people volunteering their valuable time to work the polls. You have some good ideas and experience - maybe you could find the time to volunteer yourself.

I have voted in 4 or 5 different towns in FL and CT. None of them have mailed a sample ballot, which I agree might be helpful but would also be expensive. Sample ballots are readily available online from the SOTS and occasionally are printed in local papers.

posted by: robn on November 15, 2018  12:42pm

Seeing what went on her and in FLA and Georgia I’m beginning to think the only verifiable standard for voting should be show up in person and put a rock in a pile. The pile with the most rocks wins.

posted by: 1644 on November 15, 2018  1:16pm

robn: Can we also require that the loser fall on her sword rather than writing “What Happened”? (Ajax was robbed by the Russians!)

posted by: ShadowBoxer on November 16, 2018  10:59am

Since Registrar Evans cannot be fired and refuses to resign - after two literal fiascoes in 2016 and 2018 - can the voters of New Haven have a literal rally to remove her?  Voters and Yale students were rallying in the rain on the green last week to protect Mueller because removing him would be a threat to democracy.  Have we ever seen a greater threat to the competent administration of elections than Registrar Evans?  New Haven is known as a laughing stock because of her.  And what is alderman Haci Castaboglu doing about it after two elections in a row mismanaged?  Where is he?  Is he too busy taking midterms?  He has been MIA, too busy redesigning the New Haven flag, or having faux headlines in the Yale Daily News about weed legalization.  He needs to show leadership - our democracy is at stake.  People are watching him closely as a young up and comer but so far he is not rising to any real moment.

For most law abiding people, the ONE time we encounter government, is either on Election Day, or at the DMV, and then people wonder why voters think government is the problem.  In most cases it is not, but in this case it is.  My own experience after being directed to the library, then City Hall, then Orange Street, was a polling location that ran out of pens to mark the ballots and then a worker with fingernails so long she was causing a long line and delay trying to handle them. 

Will there be a hearing to determine what steps we can take to hold people accountable?  All Evans did was write a pithy note acknowledging “there were problems” in the passive voice, indicating that once again she takes no ownership, no agency, no accountability, no responsibility.  We pay her salary 365 days a year, to be merely competent one day every two, and she fails over and over and over again.  Would this ever be tolerated in the private sector?  New Haven is known as the Florida of Connecticut Elections - all in the literal shadow of Yale Law School, a smart city to be sure!

posted by: btoller on November 16, 2018  12:20pm

Excellent points Linda - democracy takes action beyond op-eds, get involved people! Stop kvetching and make the change you wish to see ! Would like to thank the poll workers and election board volunteers who did an amazing job at Wilbur Cross…