What does it take to lose an election for registrar of voters in Connecticut? The city of Hartford suffered a systemic breakdown of its voting system on Election Day, with long lines, broken machines, and delayed precinct openings that threatened the fundamental voting rights of its citizens. It wasn’t the first sign of trouble at the city’s registrar of voters office; officials struggled to conduct primary elections in 2012, and a state board found one of the registrars had violated the law. Yet residents of Connecticut’s capital city didn’t seem to care: the three registrars responsible were reelected anyway in 2012.
Voting snafus are a perennial national embarrassment that have persisted even after the painful debacle of the 2000 presidential election. It would be ideal if voters in Hartford, and other chronically troubled districts like Ohio's Cuyahoga County or Florida's Miami-Dade, would hold their elected officials more accountable when they stumble in the administration of elections. But what happens when they don't? Fundamental democratic rights shouldn't rely on it, and higher authorities should have the tools to step in when necessary.
Amid the embarrassment — even Connecticut's governor was initially unable to cast a vote for himself Tuesday, and President Obama called a local radio station to urge the city to find a solution — Connecticut is taking steps to respond. The Connecticut secretary of state has accused the three local registrars of "gross misconduct" and is considering criminal charges against them. Lawmakers there are also reportedly considering changing the rules to give the state a bigger role in election administration, which is now almost entirely in local hands.
Boston, luckily, does not elect local voting officials, who should be selected on the basis of professional ability. And Secretary of State William F. Galvin's office has the legal authority to intervene when a municipality seriously messes up an election; the last time was in 2006, when Boston didn't have enough ballots and 30 polling stations ran out. In contrast, Connecticut's secretary of state plays an almost exclusively advisory role.
A federal commission sets voluntary standards for election administration. But voting is such a crucial right that federal law should nudge states and cities much more aggressively to adopt better practices. Maybe it's time for a race-to-the-top style incentive program for states and municipalities that professionalize their voting overseers.
Far outside the national political spotlight, Connecticut's debacle last week didn't get much attention. But imagine if Hartford's chaotic election happened in a battleground state. In a presidential year. In a close race. Unfortunately, there are still too many parts of America where that could happen.