As 64 New Haveners cast controversial votes after 8 p.m. Tuesday, a Republican attorney was on hand taking their photos and preparing an affidavit.
The lawyer, Tad Bistor, was taking the photos inside the aldermanic chambers of City Hall, where Election Day Registration (EDR) and voting was taking place.
In the end, more than 700 people waited to cast ballots, some for up to four hours, as city voting staff was overwhelmed by the late crush of registrants.
After a team of lawyers swooped in to help from the secretary of the state’s office, a large group of people on line took an unorthodox joint pledge affirming they were first-time Connecticut voters, then were registered as voters just in time (before 8 p.m.) to be able to cast ballots under state law. That sped up the process. They were were allowed to vote after the 8 p.m. registration deadline.
Given New Haven’s heavy pro-Democratic tilt, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski immediately went to court asking a judge to order those late votes separated. Stefanowski tweeted that he considered those votes “illegal.” He included post-8 p.m. EDR votes at the University of Connecticut as well. (“This is illegal and against the law. The law is very clear. Same-day registration has to happen BEFORE 8pm – even if they are in line they can’t not register past 8 p.m,” Stefanowski tweeted.) Throughout Tuesday, Stefanowski had registered special “challengers” hitting New Haven poling places, monitoring the process.
Sixty-four New Haven EDR votes have been separated and will be the subject of a Friday court hearing. (Update: Stefanowski, who considered defeat Wednesday, announced he will not pursue the case. He said Democrat Ned Lamont had beaten him “fair and square.”)
So here was Tad Bistor collecting the photographic evidence.
Bistor, a Hartford-area lawyer and a onetime Republican candidate for West Hartford Town Council, said he wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of a particular party or candidate.
But he did say he had notified the election moderator he plans to challenge those post-8 p.m. votes. He said he might use the pictures he took as evidence, “in case there’s any litigation.” He said he had “no idea” what other lawsuits had been filed. He said he’s “simply a concerned citizen.”
“I don’t believe they can legally vote,” he said. “It’s my belief — my own personal belief — that they were not properly registered to vote in Connecticut for this election. They were not on the official rolls at 8 o’clock. … People were casting votes when they weren’t allowed to.”
He added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I’m simply documenting.”
Bistor added that he thought it was a good idea that the city was at least keeping the ballots from late same-day registrants separate from those who made the cutoff.
He submitted an affidavit to EDR officials that officially questioned the ballots cast by “all individuals who were not in the possession of a registration certificate prior to 8:00 PM” throughout New Haven.
Bistor swore that he’d “personally examined” the election-day registration envelopes. He said he that he “know[s], suspect[s], or reasonably believe[s]” that the voters did not have all of the qualifications needed to cast a ballot.
He checked off boxes saying that the same-day voters wrongly had “want of identity” and “lack of a bona fide residence” in New Haven. He didn’t think any were convicted felons disenfranchised from the vote.
He also wrote in an extra reason, objecting to same-day voters “not listed upon the voting rolls of the town.”
“All of the challenged ballots were cast by individuals who had completed registration cards, many of which were completed after 8:00 PM, but had not been registered in the computer system prior to 8:00 PM,” Bistor wrote.
Bistor said he’d monitored votes before, though he’d never filed an official challenge.
This year had been “different” from other elections, he said. “I’ve seen some stuff today that I haven’t seen before,” he said. “The election day registration is a relatively new process. Not too many big elections come into play.”
Tense, Tedious Vote-Counting
Even though the ballots had been challenged, election officials still needed to figure out how many votes were at stake for their official tally.
Around 10:30 p.m., more than two hours after the polls had officially closed, officials piled up all the ballots from same-day registrants, loaded them on top of three voting machines, and wheeled everything over to the Hall of Records for a count.
For nearly a half-hour, lawyers wrangled with John Rose, the city’s corporation counsel, over whether they could watch. With a book on election law open in front of him, Rose told the attorneys to call up Secretary of the State Denise Merrill if they wanted to get in. Eventually, after a half-hour, Rose relented and let them in.
Shortly after 11 p.m., election officials laid out 64 folded, magenta ballots on a boardroom table in the controller’s office. All of them had been marked as questionable.
Officials divvied the ballots up by ward, then she read the results of each ballot individually. One said that some had left the back of the ballot blank; a few didn’t check the box in an uncontested race for probate judge. Another employee looked over her shoulder.
Kevin Arnold, the election-day registration moderator, wrote down the results.
The lawyers looked on from chairs at the side of the room, prohibited from getting too close.
Ross Gionfriddo, a volunteer attorney for the Democratic party, kept his own tally of the votes on a legal pad, but after the tedium of notching votes from the first few wards, he stopped keeping track.
The Republicans didn’t focus on the count. At first, Bistor crossed his legs and leaned back in a chair; Christopher Oliviera, another Republican attorney who previously served as the GOP’s legal compliance officer, looked at returns on his phone.
As the numbers kept coming in, the Republicans murmured about strategy. The official counting shot them looks.
Rose closed his eyes and dozed off. When someone asked him for permission to photograph the disputed ballots, he responded at first, “I’m here, but only in body,” before he quashed the request.
Right before 12:30 a.m., officials counted the last two ballots from Ward 30. Both had been a straight-ticket for the Democrats, which fit with most of the disputed ballots. Just a handful of the late Elm City votes had gone to Stefanowski, maybe 2 out of 64 counted. Oliviera asked if it had been “pretty lopsided,” and election officials said it had been.
Elections officials then turned to the rest of the EDR votes, ripping into the sealed envelopes and sorting the ballots into piles that could be fed into three machines — a process that took almost another two hours.
By 1:30 a.m., as they tore into the last stack of ballots, the poll-workers were feeling loopy. One ballot wouldn’t go through the tabulator, so Arnold set it aside. “We can fix it in the end. I mean, not ‘fix’ it,” he said, laughing. “Wrong choice of words.”
The ticker tape with all the EDR results finally spit out of the machines at 2:14 a.m.
Among the 623 same-day registrants whose ballots haven’t been challenged, 576 votes went to Lamont, 38 to Stefanowski, 9 to third-party candidates, and nearly a dozen who didn’t express a preference. Three ballots were also rejected because they weren’t submitted in a properly sealed envelope.