As darkness fell on New Haven Thursday night, citizens rallied on the Green against perceived threats to democracy in the wake of this week’s election.
A block away, in a locked basement bunker in the 200 Orange St. municipal office building with the door window papered over, the election wasn’t over yet.
Behind that door, four people, some of them running on just a few hours of sleep over three days, pored over thousands of ballots and reentered data to try to record for the third? … fourth? … time how many New Haveners voted for which candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general, state senator, and a host of other offices and ballot questions. The only way anyone would happen to know they were there would be walk to the rear of 200 Orange, down toward the garage, and peer through the one lit wire-mesh-covered window.
The tabulators thought they’d completed the counting and reporting process an evening earlier. They had even sent final numbers to the secretary of the state’s office secure official computerized database. Then they discovered they’d failed to save the absentee ballot totals.
Back to another painstaking recount.
There were no independent monitors in the basement room, G-4. The statewide Republicans had pulled back their observers, called home their posse of lawyers, withdrawn a court challenge over New Haven’s faltering election process, days ago. The statewide elections had already been called. More than a day earlier. The victors claimed victory; the vanquished, defeat.
All 168 of Connecticut’s other municipalities, from the smallest towns to Bridgeport, the state’s biggest city, had counted their votes, checked them, reported them, moved on. The last other town to report, Middlebury, had its official numbers posted by mid-day Wednesday, according to secretary of the state spokesperson Gabe Rosenberg.
But in what has become a ritual on even-numbered years, New Haven was last. Long last. Confused. Rechecking, restarting, the fundamental work of democracy: Making sure every citizen’s vote is counted. Performing government’s role in safeguarding the fundamental right of American democracy.
A reckoning would await. Already, Downtown Alder Abby Roth, who saw the breakdown firsthand as she volunteered to help Tuesday, has introduced a resolution this week (cosponsored by Alders Anna Festa and Steve Winter) for a public hearing on what went wrong and how to fix it. (Read the text of her resolution here.)
As midnight turned to Friday, the four people’s work was finally completed. One of the four, citywide Head Moderator Arnold Amore II, signed off on the results. Another, Democratic Registrar of Voters Shannel Evans, the city’s top elections official responsible for conducting elections and then counting the votes, made sure these final numbers were sent.
Finally, she could go home. But she had one last piece of business to conduct: An explanation.
At 12:13 a.m. Evans emailed a statement acknowledging what the entire state political system had been shaking its head about for days. (The full statement appears at the bottom of this article.)
“There were problems,” she wrote.
Yes. There were.
Problems Start Early
Those problems started pretty much as soon as the polls opened on Tuesday morning.
Alder Roth’s constituents were confused because many of them get sent to vote in different locations on odd- and even-numbered years. That’s because state representative and senate districts don’t align neatly with ward boundaries. Many Ward 7 voters who vote at 200 Orange St. in municipal election years, for instance, are supposed to vote at the Elm Street Library, Troup School, or Wexler Grant School in even-numbered state election years. This year the city’s Registrar of Voters website informed them all still to vote at 200 Orange, though, until Roth alerted the city on Oct. 18. Other wards have similar problems.
Tuesday morning people were flooding the Registrar of Voters’ Office with calls about where to vote. Many couldn’t get through. So they flooded the mayor’s office with calls. Around 11 a.m. Mayor Toni Harp (who has no authority over the running of elections) and two aides walked to the registrar’s office to convey the concerns.
Then machines started jamming. That happened in other cities, as well. People came in from the rain and dripped on ballots; their wet ballots jammed tabulators when officials fed them in.
A dramatically understaffed Election Day Registration (EDR) and voting operation led to four-hour waits for hundreds of people at a time at City Hall. This had happened in the two previous statewide election years. (Read about that here and here.) So Secretary of the State Denise Merrill and New Haven Mayor Harp, among others, warned the registrar’s office to have more deputized workers on hand to process last-day registrations into the state voter database so people could cast ballots in time.
Their urgings went unheeded: For most of the day, only two assistant registrars were on hand for the job. Yet again a logjam was created.
As people on line chanted, “Let us vote!,” a platoon of Yale Law School volunteers and a team dispatched by the secretary of the state’s office arrived to help clear the backlog as the 8 p.m. voting deadline approached. The Yalies were deputized to access the state database to register new voters.
Even then, an unorthodox mass oral affirmation was conducted in which dozens of waiting voters attested to never having voted here before; amid the chaos, a Republican attorney took photos and prepared an affidavit for a legal effort (since dropped) not to count those votes.
Meanwhile, at 33 different polling places (some subdivided further because of gerrymandered state legislative districts), poll workers struggled to deal with a larger-than-expected turnout.
One poll worker described the challenge in a comment posted to a previous Independent article this week:
“Those working at the polls have to be there from 5 a.m. until every ballot has been through the tabulator, reports printed, and results posted on the wall, all equipment packed for return to storage. All check-in books balanced to that ballots cast equal names checked off.
“As an Asst. Registrar, my day started at 4 a.m., picking up the tabulators with my Republican counterpart and transporting them to the polling place,” one worker later wrote in a comment posted to an Independent article about the election problems. “It ended at 11 p.m. when we had delivered the machines and tabulation report tapes back to the Registrar’s office.
“The checkers, ballot monitors and other poll workers were at the polling place from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. They got one 20-minute lunch break and no one got a supper break because it was too busy. Not many people want to work a 17-hour shift plus attend unpaid training prior to Election Day. Most of these workers are retired senior citizens, as younger people have jobs and other commitments precluding their service.
“Lastly, the weather stank. ... We had to go out in the pouring rain so that non-ambulatory voters could cast their ballots while in their cars.”
“Did It Rain Only In New Haven?”
After the polls closed, poll workers all over town — at Wexler-Grant, Troup, Edgewood, Mauro Sheridan, Truman School, Wilbur Cross — waited for hours, well past midnight, for new machines to arrive so they could re-feed thousands of ballots to be tabulated. Some of those machines broke, too. People were tired; they’d been up since before 6 a.m. Tuesday and were trying to feed as many sheets as possible into the tabulators without messing up.
Jams occurred in other cities, too. But they apparently happened more here, and New Haven took longer to fix the problems, encountering new problems when other machines malfunctioned for other reasons.
As one participant in the overnight wait remarked, “Did it only rain in New Haven?”
In at least one case, in Ward 25, officials tried hand-counting ballots beginning at 1:42 a.m., then gave up hours later and resumed feeding ballots back into a fourth and fifth machine brought to the polling location.
More counting continued throughout Wednesday. Finally, New Haven thought it was sending the full results around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to Head Moderator Amore.
Then came what appeared to be yet another computer “glitch,” he said Thursday morning.“The work that I did with a team of people did not save.”
Amore, a local attorney by trade, had been awake and on the tabulation job nonstop since 6 a.m. Tuesday except for a three-hour nap Wednesday afternoon.
“I am a litigator. I’m used to working under the pressures of trial. I can stay sharp” and count ballots even when tired, he said. But even he needed that power nap to return to the counting job, he said.
The team couldn’t just resend the information, after the Wednesday night glitch, Amore said. It was gone.
Gabe Rosenberg of the secretary of the state’s office said he recognizes the glitch to which Amore referred: “That ‘zeroed out’ error is one that gets reported to us all the time, and it happens when they don’t save what they are working on and close it down, then come back and expect it to still be there.”
Rosenberg said the office isn’t sure whether the New Haven team went to the wrong screen or otherwise sought to enter data in the wrong places. He also said other cities succeed in tabulating the votes in part by having enough staff to begin with, and then hiring fresh workers to perform data entry after the polls close at 8 p.m. “so you don’t have people who have just worked 18-hour days and are completely wiped responsible for putting numbers in.”
Surgeon Dispatched To Bunker
Whatever the reason for New Haven’s umpteenth glitch, Amore and Evans returned to the subterranean bunker in the Hall of Records Thursday morning to start over with the absentees and inputting all the results from all the races back into the computer system. Amore said they were scrambling yet again to count ballots by hand and record and report New Haven’s election results. He said he was too busy to explain why in more depth.
To the rest of the state, it appeared that all of New Haven results had been entered. The secretary of the state’s website informed the public that “10 percent” of New Haven’s — and therefore Connecticut’s — results were in. It showed Ned Lamont receiving 24,242 votes in New Haven on his two combined lines. It showed Stefanowski receiving 4,112 on his two lines. It showed Lamont collecting 687,453 combined votes statewide, Stefanowski, 648,782.
Final total, right?
Wrong. Tallies of New Haven’s absentee ballots were still missing.
The work resumed in Room G4 in the upper basement of the Hall of Records at 200 Orange St., where that team of four officials, including Amore and Evans, labored all through the night Thursday finally to get the job done.
The team included Shirley Surgeon, an attorney sent down from the secretary of the state’s office. She spent eight hours in the bunker helping the local team enter data properly, according to office spokesperson Rosenberg.
As the clock struck midnight Friday morning, New Haven finally released the official tally of how its citizens voted in Tuesday’s elections.
The late numbers revealed an even more overwhelming victory margin than previously realized for Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and now Governor-Elect) Ned Lamont: He beat Republican Bob Stefanowski in New Haven by 23,278 votes — 27,900 to 4,622.
It was by far Lamont’s largest margin in any Connecticut community. And 5,000 votes larger than the state-leading margins that had put his predecessor into office.
Click here to view the final eight-page Head Moderator’s Return document submitted overnight to the Secretary of the State’s Office with final official results of the New Haven vote for all candidates and questions on Tuesday’s ballots.
Amore was asked Friday morning for a further explanation of why the process took more than that extra final day to complete after the computer glitch. He responded by text.
“The IT issue was fixed. All votes are in,” he wrote. “No further comment.”
“There Were Mistakes”
After results were sent around midnight, Shannel Evans emailed the Independent a statement at 12:13 a.m. Friday taking responsibility for the mess.
Following is the full text of Evans’ statement:
As the Democratic Registrar of Voters, it is my obligation and duty to make certain that elections in New Haven give every eligible voter the opportunity to vote, and to ensure that votes in New Haven are processed and counted as efficiently as possible. Despite extraordinarily high numbers of voter participation and voting machine malfunctions, my office worked through the night to ensure clear and transparent counts of New Haven’s vote total. My office is proud to facilitate an election with such high participation.
I am responsible for what happens at the polls on election day, and I acknowledge that there were problems. My office and myself will have better plans to prevent long lines and late vote counts.
Therefore, I am initiating a process to address the short comings that we experienced. We will continue to double down on efforts by establishing a task force that can identify the reasons for the problems that we faced during this election. I will request that the task force also propose a set of best practices that will minimize wait times at the polls, facilitate efficient election day registration, and ensure prompt vote-counts. This task force will be open and transparent to the public.
It is my honor and privilege to serve as New Haven’s Democratic Registrar of Voters, I look forward to leading a process that makes our elections accessible to everyone who is eligible to participate in them.
A Final Note
Thank you to the dozens of New Haveners, including the pictured high school students, who spent election night racing around the city to provide our readers with real-time results from the voting machines.