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CT ballot access laws deprive voters of choice

There is much discussion right now about making it easier for Connecticut residents to vote; proposals center around no-excuse absentee voting and early voting in particular. But perhaps just as important is making sure that voters have real choices come Election Day. Connecticut has some of the most arcane ballot access laws in the country, as I found out when I ran for state Senate this past cycle.

In order to qualify for the primary ballot in Connecticut, a candidate must either gain at least 15 percent of the party convention delegates or, failing that, go the arduous petition route. For the latter, candidates for statewide office and Congress are required to get the signatures of two percent of party registered voters in their constituency.

Uniquely for state legislative candidates, this stipulation rises to five percent. What makes this a nearly impossible obstacle is that legislative candidates are boxed into an arbitrary two-week window in late May and early June to gather all these signatures.

In my district, I needed the signatures of 1,014 registered Democrats. My volunteers and I spent two grueling weeks crisscrossing Branford, Guilford, Madison, North Branford, Killingworth and Durham, in the baking sun and pouring rain. Given the tight time frame, a single thunderstorm nearly sabotaged the entire effort. The vast majority of people we spoke to were willing to sign; it wasn’t necessarily a statement of support, but an acknowledgement that democracy requires real choices and a fair hearing.

We came excruciatingly close. While we turned in 1,120 signatures, some were inevitably discounted as incorrectly registered or illegible. In one extraordinary case, a woman had passed away between the time she signed and the time the petition was handed in, and her signature was sadly tossed out. By the registrars’ count of validated signatures, we were 32 short. By our campaign’s internal count, we were only nine shy.

With the number of valid signatures I had, I could have run for governor of Ohio, to be a member of Congress from Pennsylvania or for U.S. senator from Oregon, among many other distinguished offices. Most states simply allow candidates to pay a modest filing fee to secure a spot on the primary ballot or collect a token number of signatures within a much more reasonable time frame.

Connecticut’s ballot access laws drastically tilt the playing field toward party insiders and those with great wealth. For instance, self-funding candidates can hire an army of paid canvassers to gather signatures and be assured ballot access. I certainly didn’t have that luxury. Indeed, raising money itself becomes difficult when having to petition; understandably, many potential supporters hold off on donating until ballot access is assured. Even if one did qualify for the primary ballot after petitioning, the party convention candidate will have had a month’s lead time to raise money and qualify for Citizens’ Election Program grants.

So what would a better system look like? Ideally, the antiquated conventions themselves would be abolished and all candidates – incumbent or challenger, establishment favorite or grassroots star – would be required to secure a small number of signatures. Even less radical change, though, could greatly aid the democratic process. Simply expanding the petition time frame from 14 days to a month or two would make it much more realistic to qualify. And even though 17-year-olds who turn 18 by the general election are eligible to vote in the primary, they are irrationally barred from signing or circulating petitions; this should be changed.

Simplifying the cumbersome and confusing verification procedure for circulators would be another common sense reform. A number of eligible voters couldn’t sign because they were away from the district during the petition period; some method of absentee signing would only be fair as well.

Critics of gerrymandering are fond of saying that politicians shouldn’t get to choose their voters. By that same token, politicians shouldn’t get to choose the candidates either. This session, the General Assembly should open up the process and at long last return power to the voters.


Andy Gottlieb is a Democrat from Guilford and former candidate for state Senate in the 12th District.  This op-ed first appeared on CTViewpoints.org


5 responses to “CT ballot access laws deprive voters of choice”

  1. Stuart Wells

    Only the major parties (currently the Democratic and Republican parties) get primaries and only voters who are registered members of the party can vote. Holding a primary election costs towns money. Money for poll workers, ballots, tabulator programming, etc. Therefore a challenger is required to, and should, show that he or she has a reasonable level of support among the party members.
    The question is, what is a reasonable level of support? One measure would be a level that many serious candidates are able to reach, but that still requires some reasonable amount of effort by the candidate’s supporters. In my experience as Norwalk’s Registrar of Voters, the majority of candidates do succeed in gathering enough petition signatures, but some do not — and some obviously come close but do not quite make it. We frequently have primaries in Norwalk.
    Contrary to Mr. Gottlieb’s op-ed statements, candidates who hire petition circulators often fail to get enough valid signatures. Guy Smith, candidate for Governor last year is one example. Paid circulators are largely interested in their pay checks and do a very poor job of verifying that the person signing is actually a party member and lives in the correct voting district.
    Candidates who are only popular in one part of the district in which they are running will often have circulators largely from that same part of the district, who will try to gather signers mostly from that part, resulting in duplicates.
    One thing that really helps is for the circulators to get the signers to actually print their names (so that we can read them) and to include their birthdays (not the date they signed) both of which are required on the form. Most peoples’ signatures are so illegible that we can’t even decipher their initials.
    In Norwalk we will check the petition pages as soon as they are turned in. This means that the campaigns will know how they are doing and be able to correct any problems before the deadline. Of course, campaigns who hold all their completed petitions until the final day will not get this feed-back. The benefit to us is that a candidate who has already gathered enough verified signatures can stop gathering more and we can turn our attention to other candidates or other work of the office.
    Also contrary to Contrary to Mr. Gottlieb’s op-ed statements, a candidate petitioning for a primary can raise money toward the amounts and number of contributors needed to qualify for funding under the Citizens’ Election Program. Getting the required number of contributors is usually harder than getting the required amount of money and a petitioning candidate can use the petition circulating period to get small $5 and $10 donations even if the $50 and $100 donors want to hold off until they are sure the candidate has qualified for the ballot.
    There are aspects of the process that could be improved. For example, a circulator must get the Registrar in his home town to certify that he is a registered party member. This made sense 25 years ago when each town had separate lists of voters, but everyone is listed on the state’s system now and any Registrar can check the registration status of an out-of-town voter.

  2. Patrick Cooper

    @Stuart Wells. Your opening statement holds many issues:

    “Holding a primary election costs towns money. Money for poll workers, ballots, tabulator programming, etc. Therefore, a challenger is required to, and should, show that he or she has a reasonable level of support among the party members”

    Mr. Wells – of Norwalk’s registered voters, how many identify as “U” – meaning unaffiliated? What percentage is that? How does that breakdown statewide?

    Given the “U” status – do they have a “primary”? No. Meaning, this percentage of voters has no say on exactly who appears on their ballots – essentially – who they get to choose as leaders. Mr. Gottlieb – a “D” – does not address this. No – if you want to have a say in who is on the ballot – by (arcane) law – you are forced to pick a party. Forced.

    Majority stakeholders without representation is nothing new. @Sue Haynie has made that assertion regarding our largest municipal expense – the educational system. Labor has it (unions – NFT, NASA, etc.) – the city has it (BOE), but the parents (the primary funding) and the children – do not.

    The great charade of US party politics is GOP vs. DEM. They appear conflicted on a host of issues – but the real deal is collusion in plain sight – BOTH parties benefit from stone throwing in each direction, because that tribalism – us vs. them – is the engine that drives fund raising. Separating the masses into as many fragments as possible is good for party politics, because the ability to form super-majority consensus on any hyper-critical issue to ALL voters is impossible.

    It is why our legislative branch cannot legislate. It is why our congress, after so many years – cannot do the right thing on the BIG issues so desperately needing solutions. Campaign finance reform (Citizen’s United). Health care COSTS (not coverage). Immigration POLICY. Direct investment in the USA – infrastructure (rather than building military bases in the various middle east conflicts). Balanced budgets and the reduction of the deficit. Education (and opportunity). Transformational energy policy and goals. There are more.

    The winners in this system? Corporate interests (the media is complicit), billionaire’s, and the political parties.

    In Norwalk? It is why an independent, unaffiliated candidate – who professes a desire to fix that which is broken in Norwalk, is immediately smeared and dismissed by partisans. Don’t want to hear the plan, the solutions, the vision. Just – your either blue, red, or dead.

    For at least the past 5 years (more like 20), this city has gone sideways and down. What on earth prevents us from moving forward and UP? Political parties, and the institutionalized system of exclusion.

    Anyone have a solution?

  3. Stuart Wells

    The exact numbers change daily, but currently Norwalk has about 53,500 registered voters. Slightly over 22,000 are unaffiliated, slightly over 20,000 are Democrats, about 9,700 are Republicans, and about 1,000 are registered in the Independent Party.
    Open primaries, where any registered voter could vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, are legal in Connecticut, but the two major parties have each chosen to keep their primary elections closed.
    Mr. Gottlieb’s comments were about the petitioning process, not open primaries. But “open primaries” is a worthy idea for discussion, as are “ranked choice voting” and the California system where there is a single primary for everybody and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, run in the General Election.
    Another interesting topic is whether the primary should be in August, when schools are closed, but many people are out of town on vacations, or in September when people are back in town, but schools are open, which raises various security concerns as we use 10 of the schools as polling places.
    I don’t think much can be done about political groups “dismissing” opposing candidates — that has been part of politics forever. We should just be happy that leaders are chosen by ballots, not weapons.

  4. Patrick Cooper

    @Stuart Wells. Thank you for providing the numbers. As I suspected, the largest block of voters – the “U”’s – are only able to select candidates from primaries if they timely register for one of the political parties. You’ve absolutely confirmed my point.

    And damn – if you do that – just so you can participate – some people (party loyalists) will hold it against you. Like you’re a traitor, or something.

    As for ballots over weapons? Depends what you describe as a weapon. I would contend the local DTC is a weapon of mass destruction. Just look at our property values? (the real one’s – not the fake values created to make the mayor look less like a failure).

  5. Ralph Ferrucci

    You needed to get 1000 signatures of registered democrats in 2 weeks. When I was called in to do ballot access for Ralph Nader in 2004, I needed 7,500 valid signatures of registered voters in 2 weeks. We turned in 12,016. 1000 is really not that much. Virginia requires 90,000 signatures to run for President. Many other states are a lot worse than CT is

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