STAMFORD – The city’s registrars of voters speak plainly about the tabulators used to count ballots in Connecticut elections.
“They’re old and breaking down so much that it doesn’t make sense to keep them,” said the Democratic registrar, Ron Malloy. “The technology is old, too – the memory cards fail. So it’s not just the machines, it’s the brains.”
The tabulators will get the city through the Nov. 7 municipal election, when few voters show up, said Lucy Corelli, the Republican registrar, but “they won’t stand up to the presidential election next year. Turnout in a presidential election is a whole different game, and these tabulators are done.”
It’s a particular problem in Stamford, which “is the only city in the state that has more than 70,000 registered voters,” Malloy said. “We’re the largest. We have a lot of problems.”
Not only do the tabulators fail, so do the backup tabulators, and in a few instances so have the backups to the backup tabulators, Malloy said.
“They break down in pretty much every election,” he said. “It’s happening all over the state.”
That’s why, in the spring, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas asked lawmakers in Hartford for $25 million to purchase more than 3,000 new ballot tabulators to replace the nearly 20-year-old ones now used in every polling place in Connecticut.
On Thursday, a coalition of voting advocacy groups upped the ante, and the pressure. The coalition called on Gov. Ned Lamont to take up the request to secure funding – pegged at $27.6 million – during the state Bond Commission’s Sept. 22 meeting.
It won’t be on the Bond Commission’s September agenda, Lamont’s communications director, Adam Joseph, said Thursday.
“Funding for new voting machines will be included on the Bond Commission’s October agenda so that new machines will be in place for the 2024 election,” Joseph said in an email. “The governor’s team is currently holding discussions with the Office of the Secretary of the State regarding the appropriate amount of funding.”
Delay is a big deal
October may be too late, said Patricia Rossi, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, a member of the voting advocacy coalition that calls itself The Connecticut Project.
“The secretary of the state needs time to choose a machine, order them, get them delivered and set up, and do all the training, which took more than a year last time around. So this will be close,” Rossi said. “If the money isn’t approved by the end of September, the new machines definitely won’t be ready for the presidential primaries in April.”
Secretary of the State Thomas is not a member of the voting advocacy coalition but has been pushing for new tabulators, Thomas’ press secretary, Jillian Hirst, said Thursday.
“Time is not on our side, and the sooner we are approved for bonding, the better,” Hirst said. “Our office will still have to go through (a request for proposals) that will take some time, and once we finalize a contract, the timing of the roll-out will be dependent on the vendor. We also must factor in time to test the machines, potential supply chain issues, and registrar training.”
It’s not a good spot to be in, Rossi said.
“Normally there is a backup tabulator for every tabulator, but we are in a position now that we don’t have enough backups, and we can’t get parts because the company that made the tabulators doesn’t make them any more,” Rossi said. “Towns are buying parts on eBay.”
That recently created a strange situation, said Melvin Medina, vice president of policy and advocacy for The Connecticut Project.
“The secretary of the state’s office was in a bidding war with a town registrar of voters on eBay. The state and the town were competing for parts without knowing they were doing it,” Medina said.
The tabulators now in use “were purchased in the early 2000s. They are at the end of their lifespan,” Medina said. “This bonding request represents less than 1 percent of the biennial state budget – it’s a small-scale investment with a huge-scale effect. It’s more important that we make sure people are able to vote in a time when there are already all kinds of false narratives about election fraud in so many states. We can avoid that by investing in new machines to increase confidence in our voting process.”
Voter confidence is crucial, Malloy said.
“The fact that the tabulators break down during an election is a major issue,” the Stamford registrar said. “There is a very specific process of replacing tabulator A with tabulator B, the backup. All the ballots that have already gone through tabulator A end up in the bin and have to be taken out. They go into a bag with a special seal on it. That’s watched by a Democrat and a Republican, but when the public sees someone taking ballots out of a tabulator bin, they wonder what’s going on.”
After that happened recently at the Scofield Magnet Middle School polling place, “voters took photos of ballots being taken out of the bin and sent them to the secretary of the state, as they should if they feel something is going on,” Malloy said. “Things are very busy during an election, and that cascades when we have to field calls from the secretary of the state to make a report on a voter complaint.”
Stamford Deputy Registrar of Voters Barbara Brennan tracks ballot tabulator problems.
“We no longer assume the tabulators will make it through the day,” Brennan wrote in her report.
The worst incident happened during an August 2022 primary, which took place during a heat wave, Brennan reported. In seven districts, tabulators melted, and in some cases, stored backup tabulators also melted because many schools used as polling places don’t have air conditioning.
“We had to hire and pay a staff of three people to drive around the city all day to help the moderators change (tabulators) to backup (tabulators,) which includes running a zero report and taking out all the ballots in the A box and scanning into the B box,” Brennan wrote.
In one district, a backup tabulator failed, “requiring locating a usable tabulator … and having it transported across town during peak election time.”
In the meantime, Brennan wrote, “voters had to put the ballots in the auxiliary bin, which they don’t feel comfortable doing,” and saw “moderators moving ballots from one machine to another.” Registrars then had to field calls in which voters were reporting “something fishy going on in their district.”
A voter’s gotta vote
It will only get worse, Brennan reported.
“We own 50 tabulators and have more on loan, and at times we had to borrow more. We have 112 memory cards that we have to program and ship and send so that we are covered when the memory cards fail, which is becoming more frequent,” she wrote.
“We are a city of 74,500 voters. We expect to have 80,000 registered voters by November 2024,” when “Stamford will have the highest turnout” in the state, Brennan wrote.
Besides the League of Women Voters, The Connecticut Project coalition includes AARP, ACLU of Connecticut, Bridgeport Generation Now Votes, former Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, Connecticut Citizen Action Group, Common Cause Connecticut, the League of Conservation Voters, and Safe Vote Connecticut.
Rossi said “you don’t want people getting to the polls and finding they can’t vote because machines are down, and they can’t wait because they have to get to work.”
The League of Women Voters and the other groups “want people to vote,” Rossi said. “In 2022 we passed a lot of legislation for early voting, making absentee ballots more available, and other reforms making it easier to vote. We want people to have faith in our electoral process. We have to make it as reliable as possible.”
“It costs taxpayers a lot of money when tabulators break down, and it costs voters a lot of confidence, which is not a good thing to happen in our national atmosphere,” the registrar said.
Medina said the eyes of voting advocacy groups will be on Lamont and the State Bond Commission.
“They should ensure that every municipality can effectively administer early voting, primaries and elections across the state,” Medina said. “We have to fund the infrastructure, because your right to vote is only as good as your ability to vote.”