Last Friday, I met with Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz to discuss the fall election, our transition to optical scan voting machines, and other matters.
Voter Registration Efforts
The Secretary of the State’s office is making a concerted push to get new voters registered. “We had a historic turnout in the primary on August 8th,” Bysiewicz said, “We had 35,000 new voters register with parties. 5,000 people registered as Republicans. The other 30,000 registered as Democrats. Half of those were people who had never registered before. The other half were unaffiliated voters who registered as Democrats, primarily because they wanted to participate in the primary.”
Energized by the large number of voters registering for the primary, the Secretary of the State’s office issued a new challenge to register 35,000 more voters by the fall elections. By Friday, they were only 8,000 new voters short of that goal. Interest in the general election is obviously high. When asked about why she thought interest was so strong this year, Bysiewicz said,“A lot it is the Lamont-Lieberman race. … It is a race that is being watched, of course very closely in CT, but also around the nation and around the world. The lion’s share of the interest is in the senate race. There is a frustration in some of the other candidates who would like to get some media attention." She added, "The other thing that is a contributor are three congressional races that are being watched very closely. [...] It is our sense that there is more interest in those three districts.”
In fact, the number of voters in the three congressional districts seeing close races is slightly higher than it was last year, suggesting that interest in the congressional races is driving at least some of the new registrations. Perhaps worrisome for Republicans, new Democrats outnumber new members of the GOP by a 2-1 margin--which is higher, Bysiewicz indicated, than normal.
“I always encourage people to register with a party,” Bysiewicz said, so that they can participate in primary elections.
New Voting Technology
Twenty five towns will be adopting new optical-scan voting machines for the 2006 election. All other towns in Connecticut will follow suit in 2007. Bysiewicz and her office are working to ensure that people will be able to use the new machines. Initiatives include demonstration sessions and a DVD in every polling place.
Optical scan voting machines work a lot like the little scanners your teachers may have used to grade multiple choice tests. Voters will get a paper ballot they can mark, and the machine will read it. CT Bob, bless him, has video of a machine in action.
The new ballots look very much like the inside of a lever voting machine, but instead of a lever next to each candidate's name, there is an oval to fill in. There is no special pencil, “with a pencil, people could erase,” Bysiewicz pointed out. Instead, each station will have markers. The machines are sensitive--they'll only read what’s in the ovals. Other marks on the ballot, such as a circle, a check mark, etc., will be segregated out and considered separately.
Write-in candidates have a special line at the bottom of the ballot. Voters can write in a candidate's name and fill in the bubble to vote for them. The machine will segregate the write-ins out, after which they will be counted by hand. The candidate must be a registered write-in candidate for the vote to count.
Another innovation available this year in every polling place will be a telephone system for the blind. “For the first time in the history of our state, we’re going to have the telephone system available in every polling place that’s going to give [blind] people access to voting privately and independently,” Bysiewicz said.
To ensure that the machines are working correctly, Bysiewicz said that an audit would be performed in each of the towns switching to optical scan. “We’re doing this audit work with UCONN – because the security issue with this is how do I know if the scanner is counting my votes?" Audits will also be done next year, and Bysiewicz plans to introduce legislation to make the audits mandatory.
She expressed confidence in the ability of the voters to learn the new system. “Everyone can do this. Everybody has filled out a survey, bought a lotto ticket, done a mastery test. They can do this.”
She also seemed confident that voters would not have trouble finding Joe Lieberman's name on the ballot, even though he would be no higher than fifth, and possibly as low as eighth. “Joe is going to have to do a kind of massive public education effort on where to find him," but “[Waterbury Mayor] Mike Jarjura is my poster child for how a person wins without having their name on the ballot. I think voters are smart, and they do whatever they need to do to figure it out.” Jarjura won his race for re-election as a write-in candidate in 2005 (he lost the Democratic primary), an event that made national news.
Campaign Finance Reform
The Secretary of the State's office will be handing some of its current campaign finance functions to Elections Enforcement when the transition to public financing is made next year, but Bysiewicz is very upbeat about the new law. “I wanted it to start for this election,” she said, and recounted that, when she was running for governor, she had been willing to give back all the money she had raised if public finacing were implemented for 2006 (Dan Malloy made a similar pledge--John DeStefano did not).
Bysiewicz thinks that public financing is “...less necessary for local office, because you can go door to door, house to house. For state and federal office, you can’t physically do that.”
When asked whether she thought the number of primaries would increase, she said, “I hope so, because I think that primaries are healthy for the process. We have not seen a huge number of primaries sunce the passage of the direct primary law. […] In the legislative races, we’ve seen up to 33% of the seats uncontested."
And why don't more people run?
“I think it’s a lot of things. I think it’s the media scrutiny. A lot of people think “Oh, I don’t want to put myself out there. There’s a lot of negativity in the media, and there’s a lot more scrutiny than there was before. [...] So I think media scruity is one deterrent, along with the campaign finance system.”
Rell and Campaign Finances
Bysiewicz spoke about the recent accusations of campaign finance violations that John DeStefano has made against Jodi Rell: “I think it is very serious, I think that first of all, the governor has made a pledge not to accept money from state contractors; and she has. From a state law point of view, if you’ve accepted money from state contractors, you must disclose it. And there are sanctions associated with failure to disclose.”
“I would say that Mr. DeStefano has had his own issues. As I recall, in the primary with Mr. Malloy he paid a substantial fine for failing to make those disclosures himself.”
[…] Those of us who are in elected office or […] who hope to should be setting the standard, especially in my role and certainly in the governor’s role.. she’s been stressing ethics and integrity and openness, and so I think it’s incumbent upon campaigns to make very certain."
Bysiewicz said that her own campaign would send back checks not signed, or business checks. “The contributor would say, 'Oh, well other candidates take it,' " but she returns the checks regardless.
“Ethics and integrity are a top priority.”