Bethel election machines face strapping situation

BETHEL - They're called straps but they're not made of leather or cloth. They are narrow, flat metal strips ranging from 3 to 6 inches long, and they are crucial to an accurate vote count.

The straps connect to the levers that voters pull down on voting machines. Their job is to insure that no one casts more than one ballot for the same candidate.

In the upcoming municipal election, there will be more than 70 straps in the back of each of Bethel's 15 voting machines - many more than have ever been used in the past.

The added straps speak to the number of candidates whose names appear several times on the ballot and to the extra care officials are taking with this year's election.

Still, town officials are nervous about a repeat of 2003, when several machines were taken out of service because they were set up incorrectly. In some cases, residents could not split their vote among political parties in races where they were supposed to cast ballots for multiple candidates.

The result was long lines to vote in some districts, frustration among voters, and a lawsuit by candidates that lingered for months. An investigation by the state Elections Enforcement Commission resulted in a total of $9,000 in fines for five town election officials, including the registrars of voters.

In this year's municipal election on Nov. 8, more than 30 Republican nominees have also been cross-endorsed by two minor parties. That means their names are on the ballot three times.

Democratic Registrar of Voters Mary O'Leary and Republican Registrar of Voters Mary Legnard said more candidates are cross-endorsed in the coming election than in any election they remember.

The registrars were worried the machines might not be able to handle all the straps needed and brought in an election machine consultant. "He set up one of the machines with the mechanics to make sure all the straps would fit," said O'Leary. They did.

But both registrars urge residents to make sure they pull down only one lever for each name. Even though the metal straps in back should prevent a voter from pulling more than one lever for the same candidate, the registrars don't want to overtax the machines.

If a machine breaks, Legnard and O'Leary say it must be taken out of operation for the rest of the voting day. That could cause long lines for voters.

The 2003 troubles were caused by misplaced or missing straps that weren't discovered by election officials when the machines were tested. Because there are so many straps this time around, O'Leary and Legnard are particularly concerned.

"We'll try every possible combination," said O'Leary, when voting machines are tested about a week before the election.

Bob Ritch, a certified voting machine mechanic, opened the back of one of the 715-pound machines Thursday to show the close quarters in which he has to place the straps. "It's so easy to hook onto a (wrong) lever. You have to make sure."

Ritch said 1½ hours of work by two mechanics will be needed to set up each machine for the November election.

About 100 people will be hired to man the polls on Election Day, said Legnard and O'Leary. The cost is about $10,000.

Among those working the polls will be moderators for each of the five voting districts, a head moderator for all districts, checkers who make sure residents who come to the polls are registered voters, and machine tenders who stand by the machines to make sure they are reset for the next voter.

In the smaller voting districts, there will be two machines and in the larger ones, three or four. If all the machines were to break in one district, then that district would use paper ballots.

But as long as there is one functioning machine in a district, Legnard and O'Leary said, paper ballots cannot be used.

Both registrars urged voters to become familiar with the large municipal ballot before going into the voting booth. That way they won't hold up other voters and will better ensure their votes are cast for the candidates of their choice. All districts display a sample ballot that voters can study as they enter the polls.

Legnard and O'Leary also said residents who are unsure about how to use the voting machines should take advantage of the expertise of poll workers. They encourage voters, if possible, to ask questions about the machines before getting into the voting booth.

"We just want the election to go smoothly," O'Leary said.

Legnard agrees and urges all registered voters "to just come out and vote."

Contact Marietta Homayonpour


or at (203) 731-3336.