SOTS Candidates Forum, Hartford Public Library

Last night, three of the four candidates for Secretary of the State met in a forum at the Hartford Public Library sponsored by the Hartford Vota Coalition.  Christine Stuart of CTNewsJunkie was also there and made a report <read>  Like Stewart, I was disappointed to meet Mike DeRosa outside, before the event and learn that he was excluded.  The sponsors say they are “a group of organizations that have come together with the common goal of increasing voter turnout in the City of Hartford.”  The place to start would be full participation at their own events.

There were about twenty-five citizens present. The candidates all made the case for the importance of the Secretary of the State’s office. If citizens understood that, the room would have been overflowing. The question and answer period went by quickly with a variety of extended, intelligent questions with extended answers.  I asked one question. Given the interest in the audience, the Q&A could have continued for several hours. I will focus on the election integrity aspects of the forum.

Denise Merrill, endorsed Democratic candidate led off.  She stated that she is “Passionate about Civic Education” in schools. As Secretary of the State she would modernize the office, saying that voting should be easy and simple. She expressed concern with the additional money going into elections based on the Citizens United case and expressed strong support for the Citizens Election Program.

Gerry Garcia, primary Democratic candidate was next. He emphasize his goal of giving voice to those who “have no seat at the table”. He joked about having two Jerry’s in the race.  (Nobody noted that we also have a Farrill and a Merrill). Garcia expressed strong support for early voting listing several states that have various forms of early voting and especially Oregon which has had all-mail elections for several years. Like Merrill he spoke of increasing participation by increased registration and motivation to participate in the process, saying “Our kids vote every week on American Idol”.

Jerry Farrell, endorsed Republican candidate was the final speaker. He said there were three key issues for the Secretary of the State: Business Registration, Voting, and Records Management. He said when looking at changes in voting he views them through two filters:  Avoiding fraud and avoiding unfunded mandates that towns cannot afford.  He also expressed support for no-excuse absentee voting, criticizing the current system as forcing voters to lie.

In general, the candidates all agreed on the need to improve automation, the convenience of business and voter access to the state, increase participation in democracy, and increase voter turnout.

Q&A
I will cover the highlights from my point of view. Each candidate present responded to each question. The moderator did an excellent job of allowing the audience and candidates plenty of time to speak, yet occasionally moving the candidates to conclude and giving them a second chance when they did not respond to the question.

The first question was about cracking down on unregistered businesses. Farrell pointed out many consumer complains he receives about such businesses  and has dealt with as Consumer Protection commissioner.  He also pointed out that each unregistered business hurts those businesses that play by the rules.

Unfortunately, Denise Merrill had to leave after responding to the first question.

I asked the second question. “How far would you go? Where would you draw the line? In supporting military and expat voting. Minnesota has solved the problem with conventional means, while other states are proposing voting via Internet, fax, and email.  All of these methods are vulnerable to hacking.  West Virginia just concluded a ‘successful’ test of Internet voting at approximately $1100 per vote.  Most implementations of email and fix voting involve an election official copying votes onto a ballot, hardly secret. Imagine a town council member with a child in Iraq, or the council member in the reserves deployed in Iraq?  The vote would not be secret.  At a minimum the person who did the copying would know.  Where would you draw the line, what would you spend?”

Garcia would draw the line at insisting on a paper ballot. The protections it provides are too important to sacrifice. Farrell was not as definitive, he said he hoped that the issues could be worked out so that fax or email could be accomplished safely.

A question was asked on the candidates’ support for Instant Runoff Voting.  Farrell said it was not his first priority for elections. His first priorities would be fixing the current system then he would consider other areas of changing the election system. Garcia said that IRV was not proven, indicating that he is not convinced at this point.

To another question on how they would make registration easier, especially for graduating high school seniors, Farrell said he would tour the state speaking at as many high schools as possible. Garcia pointed out that although registration is important, we must recognize that only one-third of registered voters voted in the Nov 2009 election – so registering is only part of increasing civic engagement.

The final question was on the advisability of expanding absentee voting with the proven problems of fraud.  Farrell responded that while we have had problems, all of those that have been identified have been prosecuted.

Given the time constraints and the alternatives to learning about the candidates, it was a very useful event.  Much more informative than the single candidate speaking event.  More relevant than the stiffer highly public televised “debates” with canned questions from the mainstream media. There was a lively discussion of a wide range of relevant issues.  We would like to see more events like this, with more time for questions, more of the public present and engaged – with all the candidates welcome.

4 responses to “SOTS Candidates Forum, Hartford Public Library”

  1. mattw

    The question of ballot privacy is a tricky one — in some instances (such as supervised balloting at nursing homes), there’s no option but for a voter to surrender their privacy to vote, and the process is shaped to simply ensure that they are free of influence while voting. Similarly, if the decision faced by an overseas voter is between voting in a way without absolute privacy and not being able to cast a vote at all, maybe that’s a tradeoff that’s acceptable in a particular situation.

    The fact is that the state constitution declares voter privacy a right — “The right of secret voting shall be preserved” in Art. 6 Sec. 5 — but it’s not clear to me that it’s an absolute that can’t be surrendered by a voter who chooses to vote in a non-private fashion. If non-private voting were promoted to the exclusion of other means, then I think there’d be a real problem. And I have something of a problem providing extra convenient means to vote to a subset of voters that happen to be overseas when someone who is merely away at college may also enjoy a more convenient process. But experiments (even like the extra-expensive WV test) are how we learn and adapt.

  2. mattw

    I think the cost of IVS hovers around $1000 per vote cast ($100 per district for programming and ~$150 for telephone installation and service, with the majority of polling places having no IVS users) – it speaks to the size of the pool of voters, though the marginal cost of additional votes cast by any given method may be much less.

    And when you say that it tests how much voters like a given system, in the context of overseas military votes, that test uncovers whether internet or express mail voting is actually more convenient for them. (Testimony for HB 5442 asserted that it’s easier to get wifi in a foxhole than it is to get an envelope, but I have no idea if that’s the case or not.)

    For their pilot, apparently the ballot return rate for electronic voting was twice the rate for paper ballots. The WV pilot’s security standards did incorporate participation by independent monitors at a number of points, but whether these were sufficient in practice I don’t know. It was not open-source, but the multiple-key decryption process seems like a reasonable mechanism for office-side security and the maintenance of individual voter privacy. I can think of some physical components of the balloting system we use that could do with that level of security.

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