WALLINGFORD — The town’s registrars of voters have agreed to a consent order with the State Elections Enforcement Commission acknowledging that security procedures at schools, which served as polling places for the 2016 presidential primary, violated state law on voter identification requirements.
The order, signed by the registrars in November and by the SEEC last month, instructs the town to take steps to avoid violations if schools continue to serve as polling places, but carries no civil penalties after investigators determined the violations were not committed with the intention of disenfranchising voters.
The SEEC, acting on a referral from Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill’s office, found that eight of Wallingford’s nine polling places for the April 26, 2016 presidential primaries were located in schools and that, unlike other elections, the buildings remained open that day for classes.
School personnel required voters to show photo ID before they could enter the buildings, enforcing school district rules about visitors access enacted after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. State law, though, permits voters to show forms of identification other than a photo ID and prohibits polling officials from requiring one.
School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo told investigators that the 2016 primary was the first held at the schools since the 2012 policy went into place.
State officials and town registrars of voters – Republican Chet Miller and Democrat Betty Torre – gave differing accounts of whether registrars were aware of the policy ahead of time.
Registrars called Merrill’s office around 6:15 a.m. on primary day, saying they had just learned of the ID requirement. The registrars said their understanding of the conversation was that school personnel could continue to require photo IDs for access to buildings, but could only do so outside the polling place.
An official with Merrill’s office gave a different account, saying she relayed that this was not allowed. The registrars said they only understood this after a second call with Merrill’s office that afternoon, and that Menzo eventually stopped the practice of requiring photo ID to enter the schools.
Regardless of whether state officials made registrars aware of the policy ahead of time, the SEEC determined that it is the responsibility of election officials to select “a suitable polling place” that “allowed for the proper administration of the voter identification rules.” Investigators pointed to other cases where election officials were held accountable for the actions of school employees.
The consent order also states that ignorance of those responsibilities is not a defense. The SEEC determined the ID policy is well-intentioned because it is designed to make schools safer, but raised concerns that not finding Miller and Torre to be in violation could set a precedent.
“It isn’t hard to envision a scenario in which a registrar who does not agree with the voter ID rules enumerates in (state law) making arrangements with the build administrators” to find ways to impose “various extrajudicial burdens” on voters, the consent order states.
The registrars could have faced civil penalties of up to $16,000 each, $2,000 for each offense, but SEEC determined that the violation was well-intentioned, that the registrars appeared to make honest efforts to correct the problem that day, and that there was no evidence that any voters were denied the right to vote.
Miller, who still serves as the Republican registrar of voters, said Thursday the registrars’ office didn’t receive any voter complaints.
Torre is no longer the Democratic registrar.
Miller said that while the school district’s rules were understandable, he wishes the registrar’s office was involved in the planning.
Should Wallingford continue to have polling places in schools, the consent order recommends that classes not be held the day of a vote. Should school be open to students, the order suggests placing voting booths in a gymnasium, cafeteria, or other portion of the building with outside access so voters can be limited to that area.
“We will continue to work with the registrar of voters to ensure we are doing what is necessary to address the matter,” Menzo said in a statement. “In the event of future primaries, the Board of Education agreed that schools would be closed.”